Mama drama

Mama drama

By Michael Pickard
March 31, 2023


The cast and creative team behind Italian series The Good Mothers discuss how it flips the script on mafia dramas with the true story of how three women found the courage to bring down a deadly clan.

While series such as Gomorrah, Suburra and The Sopranos have turned stories about the mafia into a genre of their own, a new drama from Italy draws on real events to uniquely explore the downfall of one Calabrian clan from a fresh perspective.

The Good Mothers, a Disney+ Italian original series, tells the true story of three women who were born into the deadly ‘Ndrangheta clan and how they worked with a courageous female prosecutor to bring it down from the inside, in an attempt to fight for their freedom and the chance to build a new future for their children.

Produced by Italy’s Wildside (My Brilliant Friend) and House Productions (Sherwood) in the UK, the six-part series is written by British screenwriter Stephen Butchard (A Child in Time). His interest in the project began when he read a news article about the ‘Ndrangheta, while at the same time, Foreign Press Association journalist Alex Perry was writing a book about the mafia family. After reading some of Perry’s early chapters, Butchard was hooked.

“It’s such a fantastic story. I definitely wanted to be involved,” he tells DQ during the Berlin International Film Festival, where the show had its world premiere and won the inaugural Berlinale Series award. “It was a familiar world but from a totally different point of view of the women. Then once you got more into the story, it was about the incredible courage of the women and I knew this story needed to be told.”

Micaela Ramazzotti plays Lea, one of a group of women taking on the clan

When it came to writing the Italian-language series, Butchard penned the scripts in English before New York-born Italian writer Claudia Durastanti translated them. “She really understood the nuances of the English,” Butchard explains. “We went through it, sat down and spoke about what we wanted, and with any problems with the English where the Italian was difficult to find, we discussed an alternative, so it was a long process, a detailed process but really worthwhile and really interesting.”

In fact, when Butchard first started work, the series was due to be made in English. “But more and more we found it had to be a story that was told in Italian,” he says. “Otherwise you would lose all the authenticity, so it was completely necessary and a really good experience.”

Lead director Julian Jarrold (This England, Appropriate Adult) signed up after reading Butchard’s scripts and Perry’s book, and partnered with Elisa Amoruso (Time is Up) behind the camera. “In England, the ‘Ndrangheta are not very well known. It was a complete eye-opener to learn about the culture of this invisible mafia that conceals its wealth so cleverly but has this very oppressive family structure. And the idea of these women, who are prepared to take on the mafia and consider betrayal, was such a powerful story. It was too good to miss,” he says.

Amoruso was working on another set when she took the call from Wildside and later read the first episode script. “Of course, as an Italian, I knew about the ‘Ndrangheta and I knew the story of these characters – Lea Garofalo, Giuseppina Pesce and Maria Concetta Cacciola – because they are quite known,” the director says. “But this story had not been told in this way, from their point of view, so it was necessary to tell it. These invisible women have been so strong and brave to fight against their families, and their sacrifices are huge.”

Shining a light on these “invisible women” also appealed to the show’s stars: Gaia Girace (My Brilliant Friend), Valentina Bellè (Catch-22), Simona Distefano (The Traitor) and Micaela Ramazzotti (Like Crazy).

The series follows Denise (Girace), daughter of Lea Garofalo (Ramazzotti), plus Maria Concetta Cacciola (Distefano) and Giuseppina Pesce (Bellè), who dared to defy the ‘Ndrangheta. To help them, prosecutor Anna Colace (Barbara Chichiarelli), having just arrived in Calabria, determines that focusing on the women is the key to bringing down the clan. Though the ‘Ndrangheta is famous and feared for its iron fist and insidious power, Denise, Giuseppina and Maria Concetta attempt to free themselves from its shackles and collaborate with the authorities.

Barbara Chichiarelli is prosecutor Anna Colace

“That’s really the magic thing about cinema, because what The Good Mothers does is shed light on this story,” Ramazzotti says. “It’s very powerful because previously almost nothing was known about them. It’s based on a true story, and what the directors managed to do was shape that in a cinematic form.

“We are actors, we give our bodies, we give our voices, but the magic and power of cinema is that it can give voices and shine a light on these women. Their stories weren’t terribly well known, but Lea Garofalo’s story was partly known because she was born into this family of the Calabrian mafia and was killed by them. But at the same time, she managed to pass on freedom to her daughter Denise, who testified against her father, who killed her mother. So although her mother, a very strong woman, had been killed, her daughter was freed by that. If they were invisible before, they certainly aren’t now. Soon they will be very visible.”

Distefano says that when people talk about characters like those in The Good Mothers, they talk about “revolutionary women like Joan of Arc, or feminists out on the street demonstrating.”

“But what’s really important here is our characters are fighting for the little things of everyday life,” she continues. “My character, for example, is fighting to be free to meet a girlfriend, to chat on Facebook, to wear certain kinds of make-up or to dress in a particular way. That freedom to do the small things was very important.”

Meanwhile, Girace can see similarities between Denise – who initially finds herself in the middle of events she doesn’t understand and can’t control when her mother disappears after meeting with her father – and Lila, the determined, forthright character she plays in the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend novels.

The Good Mothers is a Disney+ original

“Lila and Denise are both strong and brave women,” the actor says. “Denise is very gentle and sincere. She wants to shed light on what’s happened, and what’s important to her is that sense of justice. But they’re also very different characters, and it was important for me to differentiate between the two.

“It was a huge responsibility to play this role, because life has been so hard for Denise. She’s had so many blows from life, she’s struggled, but she’s very brave and, at the end, she’s also alone because she has to turn against her family; she testifies against her father and boyfriend. What’s important for her at the end of the day is justice, and also a sense of love for her mother.”

Undertaking a long period of preparation before production, Jarrold toured “every little mountain village” in Calabria in southern Italy, where the story is set, looking for a location that was both safe enough to film in and similar to the locations where the real events took place. He also took the time to get a feel for the region’s culture.

“It is very different in Calabria compared with the north of Italy,” he notes. “Then it was a process of Elisa and I talking and going over references and coming up with a visual style to present something that was visceral, that was from the women’s point of view and also gave an insight into that world.”

“It was such a huge honour to work with Julian, as he had brilliant ideas and a very specific way to look at our places,” Amoruso says of Jarrold’s eye for locations. “At the beginning, I was surprised he had chosen very narrow spaces for these women – they were like cages. We also had prisons in the show, but he had chosen little rooms for them, so there was this sense they are in a cage and they couldn’t express their world. These women didn’t have freedom in their lives, so I liked it very much.”

And while those small spaces weren’t particularly crew-friendly, Amoruso says the team behind the scenes – both from Italy and the UK – were singularly focused on telling this story.

“I loved the fact we could work together and they had a completely different point of view on Italy,” she says. “It was very interesting to work like that. The translator, Claudia, translated the script in a way we could really feel in Italian – and this was also my job. I am Italian, but I was following the job Julian was doing while also trying to make this transition from English to Italian, and it was magic. We made it.”

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