Salvatore Giuliano [DVD]
Director : Francesco Rosi
Screenplay : Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Enzo Provenzale, Francesco Rosi, Franco Solinas
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1961
Stars : Salvo Randone (President of Viterbo Assize Court), Frank Wolff (Gaspare Pisciotta), Sennuccio Benelli (Reporter), Giuseppe Calandra (Minor Official), Pietro Cammarata (Salvatore Giuliano), Max Cartier (Francesco), Nando Cicero (Bandit), Giuseppe Teti (Priest of Montelepre), Cosimo Torino (Frank Mannino), Frederico Zardi (Pisciotta's Defense Counsel)
Franceso Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano is an Italian JFK, but without Oliver Stone’s criticism-inducing visual and theoretical hyperbole.
Unlike Stone, Rosi is a more nuanced and rigorous political filmmaker. What they have in common, though, is that they are both interested in bearing witness to great and terrible events in their nation’s histories and, more importantly, exposing the oft-hidden power dynamics that are the true fuel of the political machine. Just as JFK was less about who killed Kennedy than it was about the power mechanisms that allowed for the assassination to take place, Salvatore Giuliano, Rosi’s third feature film and the one that put him on the international cinematic map, is less about who killed the eponymous Sicilian bandit and more about the collusion between the government, the military, and the Mafia in the postwar struggle for control of Sicily.
Rosi emerged from the neorealist school of filmmaking espoused by such directors as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, who sought to capture the reality of postwar Italy by focusing on “a slice of life” and using nonprofessional actors, natural lighting, and location photography. Rosi extended neorealism and made it his own by marrying the realist aesthetic to the exposure of power dynamics. Rather than focusing on a single, everyday character, he used the tenets of neorealism to depict the mechanisms hidden behind the façade of everyday life. The protagonist is not a person, but Sicily itself.
Rosi could have easily made a portentous melodrama out of the life of Salvatore Giuliano, as Michael Cimino did in 1987 with The Sicilian. After all, Giuliano’s short life was filled with sound and fury. Viewed by some as a Robin Hood and by others as a ruthless gangster, Giuliano spent all of his adult life a fugitive from the law, hiding in the mountains and surrounding himself with a small army of loyal followers. He was involved in the violent separatist struggle in the late 1940s, but was most infamously implicated in the 1947 Portella Della Ginestra massacre, in which members of the communist party were gunned down by Giuliano’s men during a May Day celebration, killing 7 and wounding more than 30.
All of this is part of Salvatore Giuliano, but obliquely. That is, Giuliano is a ghost in the film that bears his name. We rarely if ever see him in the film, and, when we do, it is in fragments—a hand here, the back of his head there. At most, we see him in long shots leading his men, always visible in his long white coat. In fact, we see more of his lifeless corpse than we see of him as a living, breathing character.
The film’s opening shot is an extreme high angle looking down on a small courtyard in the Sicilian town of Montelepre, where Giuliano’s bullet-ridden corpse lies. From there, Rosi weaves his complicated narrative by cutting back and forth across time. The present tense involves the fallout from Giuliano’s death and the question of who killed him. However, most of the film is composed of flashbacks that show the complex interconnections among Giuliano’s bandits, the people who lived in the small towns in which Giuliano hid, the carabineri (the Italian military police), and the Mafia. This is Rosi’s true subject, that in which he is most intrigued, and it is testament to his filmmaking prowess that the film is compelling despite its dispersed focus and lack of a central character with whom we can identify.
American audiences, to whom Salvatore Giuliano—the film and the man—is almost completely unknown, will likely have some trouble following portions of the film, largely because Rosi clearly made it with an Italian audience in mind who was already familiar with the infamous bandit. The film does sketch out the historical background with a voice-over narration at various times, which is extremely helpful in guiding the uninitiated. Rosi’s complex and unmarked flashback structure, which oftentimes seems to have no rhyme or reason, will also be a potential source of frustration, although a second or third viewing shows that the narrative works quite beautifully in conveying the tension of the film’s central mystery—who killed Giuliano and why?—while simultaneously documenting the day-to-day political realities of Sicily in the 1940s.
Some of the film’s most compelling scenes are those that have the most documentary-like feel. Rosi was insistent on shooting the film in the actual Sicilian locations where the real events took place and using all nonprofessional actors from the region, many of whom experienced the events firsthand (the only professional actors in the entire film are the Italian stage actor Salvo Randone, who plays a judge, and American actor Frank Wolff, a familiar face from numerous spaghetti westerns, who plays Gaspare Pisciotta, Giuliano’s cousin and righthand man). This gives the film a sense of immediacy, as if it were being shot right then, rather than 10 to 15 years after the events depicted.
Yet, Rosi doesn’t use faux-documentary tactics like shaky handheld camerawork. Rather, the cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo (who worked throughout his distinguished career with such luminaries as Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini) is quite elegant, using beautifully composed long shots and complicated tracking movements to alternately convey the broad scope of the Sicilian countryside and the intense claustrophobia of the forces colluding the obscure the truth. This, more than anything, is what stays with you when the film is over and compels multiple viewings.
|Salvatore Giuliano Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD|
|Audio||Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie|
Original theatrical trailer
Witness to the Times, interview with director Francesco Rosi and film critic Tullio Kezich
Excerpt from July 12, 1960 Italian newsreel on Salvatore Giuliano’s death
Il cineaste e il labirinto documentary
Written tributes by Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, and Martin Scorsese
Essay by film historian Michel Ciment
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 24, 2004|
|Criterion, as usual, has done a fantastic job of bringing an important, but often neglected, film to the U.S. video market. Salvatore Giuliano is presented in a stunning anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer taken from the original restored 35mm camera negative. The image was then further restored in the digital realm using the MTI Digital Restoration System. Simply put, it doesn’t get any better than this. The image is filmlike and virtually flawless throughout, with nary a nick, scratch, or bit of dust to be found. The black-and-white image has great depth of detail and strong contrast that really does justice to Gianni Di Venanzo’s gorgeous cinematography.|
|The original monaural soundtrack was transferred from a restored soundtrack negative and then given a digital clean-up. It sounds very good throughout, though understandably dated in its scope and fidelity. Some of the dialogue was obviously dubbed, but any incongruence with the actors’ mouths is a result of the postproduction work, not the audio transfer.|
|The first disc contains yet another excellent audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie, who sheds some crucial light on the political and cultural context and production history of the film. Always articulate and concise in his commentary, Cowie rarely pauses in offering a wealth of historical detail, as well as some astute analysis of his own. The second disc opens with Witness to the Times, a new three-part video interview with director Francesco Rosi and film critic Tullio Kezich, who chronicled the film’s production. Rosi’s life and career are further illuminated with the 55-minute documentary Il cineaste e il labirinto, which was made for Italian television. This documentary will be particularly intriguing to people, like me, who are largely unfamiliar with Rosi’s 40 years of filmmaking (it includes clips from all of his most significant films). Also included is an except from an Italian newsreel from July 12, 1950, about the death of Giuliano that includes actual footage of Giuliano’s corpse and the courtyard where it was found (which helps illustrate just how closely Rosi’s film corresponds with documented reality). The insert fold-out includes written tributes by directors Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, and Martin Scorsese and an essay by film historian Michel Ciment.|
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright © Janus Films