“Mafia Mamma” Director Catherine Hardwicke Creates a Comedy You Can’t Refuse

Oscar-nominated actor Toni Collette stars in the title role of Mafia Mamma, a new femme-forward comedy that offers a twist on the gangster film genre. The movie features women in roles both above and below the line, with director Catherine Hardwicke at the helm, writer Amanda Sthers as producer, and Monica Bellucci and Sophia Nomvete as co-stars. 

Filmed in some of the most beautiful locations in Italy, Mafia Mamma tells the story of an unfulfilled American wife, empty nester, and marketing professional Kristin Balbano (Collette), who gets called to Italy when her grandfather dies. She discovers that not only is the family winery a front for one of the two most powerful mafia families in Italy, her grandfather’s right hand, Bianca (Bellucci), informs her she is meant to take over the family business. Through Kristin’s very fish-out-of-water experiences as the new mafia don, she undergoes a transformation and finally steps into her own power.  

Mafia Mamma allows Toni Collette to exercise her considerable comedy chops, so it’s tons of fun to watch. It also brings a feminist lens to a genre overwhelmingly populated by men in front of and behind the camera. The Credits spoke to Catherine Hardwicke about her experience bringing the film to the screen, shooting in locations with hundreds of years of history, and more. 


A lot is on the page in terms of Kristin and Bianca’s reactions and interactions being driven by their experience as women over 40. What, though, were some things that came up during the production or filming that Toni and Monica, as real-life women of a certain age working in a challenging industry, brought to it?

Every day we’d think about that. So, wardrobe, for example. How are we going to present ourselves to the public? How’s the hair going to be? What are the styles? The wardrobe actually shows Kristin’s transformation because she starts out much more conservative and frumpy, and by the end, you see that she’s a bit more body-conscious, and she’s happy to live in her body much more than she did before. So I think that’s something that women, as we age, can relate to. Everybody navigates, “How do we dress? What’s our appearance? What do we put forward?” We question if we’re going too youthful or maybe too old. That was interesting to examine.

And for Monica Bellucci? 

In a way, we could talk about sexuality because how often do we give a woman that age permission to be sexual and to admit that they want to be sexual? Monica’s character has a mysterious past. She’s very sexy, and the way she dresses is obviously this amazing femme fatale. So actually, right in the middle of shooting, when we were in the limoncello scene, and you see a mob boss die, I said, “Monica, maybe he was your lover.” Monica said, “I like that. It adds another layer of mystery to her.” So she just improvised.  She said, “Yeah, let me run with that.” And she whispers, “Ciao, Carlito.” She leaned into it.

Monica Bellucci is Bianca in “Mafia Mamma.” Courtesy Bleecker Street.

There’s a gunfight in the streets of an Italian town that has tiny alleyways. How did you approach that?

Yes. That little town is Bracciano, and it’s about an hour north of Rome, on a lake. The town actually was pretty friendly because people live in all those little buildings. So I said, “Let’s have the real people that live there popping out of their windows. Let’s really involve the community.” They were very supportive of that, so when you see a girl looking out the window and shutting the shutters, that’s the woman that lives there. It made it so much fun. I think they were amused by the whole situation, and we did a lot of planning, “We’re going to run from point A to point B… the motorcycle’s coming here.” You did have to plan it all out, but the town was very excited about it.

From left, stars Toni Collette, Monica Bellucci, Eduardo Scarpetta, director Catherine Hardwicke on the set of MAFIA MAMMA. Courtesy of Bleecker Street.”

The Italian locations are gorgeous, especially the villas for both of the families. 

Cattleya was our local Italian production company. They had a great location scout who showed many, many photos, and when I saw those two villas, I thought they looked very cool. And then you get to go, and as a former architect, I was thrilled to get to go scout through the villas, and as you walk through, “This villa is 400 years old.” “This villa is 500 years old. The pope slept here. This cow head on the wall is the cow that gave milk to the pope during World War II.” The history is insane. One of the villas is right on the Appian Way. You’re standing on the rock, the stones. The tree is 1000 years old where they’re stomping the grapes. At one point, the owner asks me, “Hey, do you want to see this tombstone we found in the yard here?” It was a Roman Emperor’s eye doctor’s tombstone. It’s just casually in the backyard. So, as an architect, of course, the cinematographer [Patrick Murguia] and I really tried to show that as much as we could and to give you a sense of the scope and the scale.


What were some of the challenges for you and your cinematographer Patrick Murguia in terms of shooting in spaces that were hundreds of years old? The lighting inside the villas was beautiful. 

I’m so glad you noticed that because you’re right, in the villas, the walls all had paintings that have been there for, like, 300 years. You cannot touch it. So how are you going shoot?  You can’t put a spreader on the ceiling, and we don’t really love to have light stands in the rooms because then you can’t move, so we had many challenges. You light through the windows, but the walls are so thick, so you’re trying to shoot light through that, and we would have light stands. The really cool Italian gaffer would follow actors around with a light if we did a moving shot. Patrick was always just like, “New challenge. New challenge. New challenge.”

Toni Collette is Kristin in “Mafia Mamma.” Courtes Bleecker Street

There’s a scene outside under a canopy between Toni and Monica with great lighting.  

We had the canopy, so there was shade, and then that area is actually quite beautiful because it’s in a field with all these flowers, and somehow, the place already looked great.  We shot at the right time of day, at magic hour, and we had some soft bounces around and, yes, they just glowed. They’re gorgeous. I love that scene.

Having worked on so many projects in your career, what did this film offer you that you’d not had before as a filmmaker? 

I don’t think I’d ever got to have this much fun on-set, and get to be quite as creative, because with comedy, even if it’s beautifully written on the page, which it was, with these great actors, you still think, “Can I make it any funnier in the moment? Can I add one more little funny thing?” How do we add one more layer? So all the time, you are trying to, kind of, improv, so then the comedy improv classes that I took, I think they were very helpful. Monica and Toni were just game for everything. Monica would always push things. Sophia Nomvete, who played Kristin’s friend, the lawyer, Oh, my God, when she walked into that courtroom, and she saw the vault and sings? She just did that. I didn’t even know she could sing like that. I’m like, “Oh my god, dude, you are radical.”  This is the first movie she’s ever been in. And the first TV series she’s ever been in is Lord of the Rings. Those are pretty fun for your two first things!


Mafia Mamma is now in theaters nationwide. 




Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale is lead contributor for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, where she writes reviews and spotlights focused on female filmmakers and women in film. You can find her work on the site at AWFJ.org. She has owned ArtInsights, an art gallery dedicated to film art, for over 25 years, which has resulted in expertise in the history of animation and film concept art.  She is in her eighth year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con.