Carmine Bonavia (James Belushi) is an idealistic New York City councilman who wants to be mayor. Despite an easily understood slogan — “Make A Difference!” — his reform campaign is running behind in the polls. Having nothing to lose, Carmine announces that he supports the legalization of drugs. By taking out the profit motive, the Sicilian Mafia will no longer have any incentive to sell drugs in the inner city. Carmine shoots to top of the polls. Now leading by 11%, Carmine marries his campaign manager (Mimi Rogers) and returns to his ancestral home of Sicily for a combination honeymoon and fact-finding tour. The Mafia, realizing that Carmine is serious about legalizing drugs, conspires to frame him for the murder of a flower boy. If that doesn’t work, they are willing to resort to other, more permanent, methods to prevent Carmine from ever becoming mayor.
The Palermo Connection is an unfairly overlooked film from Francesco Rosi, an Italian director who specialized in political controversy. Though The Palermo Connection was sold as a thriller, Rosi was more interested in showing how organized crime, big business, government corruption, the war on drugs, and the poverty of the inner cities are all intricately connected. When Carmine arrives in Palermo, Rosi contrasts the outer beauty of Sicily with the desperate lives of the junkies living there. The pace may be too slow for action movie fans but Rosi gives the audience much to think about. This is probably the last film you would ever expect to star James Belushi but he gives a strong and committed performance as Carmine.
The Palermo Connection, which was co-written by Gore Vidal, is a good film that predates The Wire in its examination of how greed, drugs, poverty, and racism all come together to victimize the most marginalized members of society.