The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Salvatore Giuliano

Hero, outlaw, bandit, revolutionary, Robin Hood, all names to describe a historic figure who fought against the government or authority in some fashion. Depending on their motivations, tactics, techniques and ultimate goals, one and all of those descriptions can apply. As for their film stories, how are they portrayed? Pancho Villa, Che Guevara, and Salvatore Giuliano, an Italian bandit from the 1940s. Let's go with an Italian film of the same name, 1962's Salvatore Giuliano.

It's 1950 in a Sicilian town in the hills and a dead body has been found in an alleyway. Authorities identify the body as Salvatore Giuliano (Pietro Cammarata), an infamous bandit who has terrorized the countryside since late in WWII. In the wake of the Allied victory in Sicily, a power void was created with many different groups trying to grab that power. One group, the MIS, approaches Salvatore with an offer. Can he continue to cause the government and police as much trouble and chaos as possible? The Italian bandit takes up the offer, his group of bandits and gunmen wreaking havoc. The power is there, but one government change after another, one election after another, his group's desires aren't met, putting Salvatore on the outlaw path again. How does he end up dead in the alleyway? What led him to the situation that eventually led to his death?

Ready for a twist? Are you sure? The titular character, the one who was the only character mentioned in that plot a secondary, even minor character. By my count, he had maybe three lines, and those are simple orders to his men as they prepare for battle. He has little to no dialogue, has no real close-ups and is a key character in name only. It's what his name represents that's important. He's discussed in just about every scene, and we actually see him more as a corpse than a living human being. What's more surprising? How well it works. His name and the idea of his name becomes more than he ever could have hoped. The film from director Francesco Rosi obviously takes a favorable point of view upon Giuliano so his intentions, motivations and personal relationships become secondary to what his name actually means to the people. I would have never thought this would have worked, but it ends up working on just about all levels.

Filmed almost like a documentary -- a neo-realist documentary style according to the InterHighway -- 'Giuliano' can also be viewed and appreciated solely in terms of style. It is filmed in black and white, giving the story an eerie calmness throughout. Rosi films on location in Italy, the Italian countryside providing a criminally simplistic background that gives the story quite an air of authenticity. Also, Rosi and cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo shoots in a variety of fashions. The neo-realist style comes into play here with an almost complete lack of editing. Rosi and Di Venanzo set the camera up and let things go, long, interrupted shots that are a marvel to watch. We see scenes come together -- action or drama or both -- and the camera simply follows the action, countless extras walking in and out of frame as needed. It's less editing than just about any movie you'll see out there now, but by doing so much less in terms of filmmaking, they actually do a lot more. Again, it's crazy how well it works on a very simple, aesthetic level.

Actually delving into some story, there's actually more style to be discussed. The opening scene is an eerie, unsettling scene, police and investigators milling around Salvatore's bullet-riddled, bloody corpse just lying in the dirt in an alley. For starters, once we learn it's Salvatore, we know in a sense how the movie will end. Salvatore Giuliano will die. The rest of the story is told in a non-linear flashback style, scenes bouncing back and forth between Giuliano's rise to power (of sorts) and the fallout following his death. It's tough to keep up with -- reading Italian subtitles aside -- because there aren't very obvious transitions. Sometimes, it took me quite awhile to realize the story had bounced back and forth. You get into a rhythm, but it is an atypical story that definitely forces you to pay attention scene in and scene out.

Now, everything can't be perfect so here we go. The movie runs 125 minutes, and for the first 60-plus minutes, things are pretty perfect. I loved the first half of the movie. LOVED it. Then the bouncing story bounces forward, following the fallout of Salvatore's death including a trial as some of his men/followers, including right hand man and deputy, Gaspare Pisciotta (Frank Wolff), who may or may not have betrayed Salvatore. Wolff is one of two true actors in the film (and hams it up), along with Salvo Randone as the judge presiding over the trial, the rest of the roles being given to locals and peasants in the area while filming. The court sessions go on for too long, dragging on with screaming matches about principles, guilt and ideologies. It's the opposite of what's good about the first half, and the resolution just isn't satisfying enough for all the build-up.

This movie is one that has lots going on, most of it very good, some of it difficult to get through. Without having much knowledge of the Sicilian fight for freedom in the 1940s, it is a tough movie and story to keep up with. Lots of groups, lots of individuals with their own motivations, it's hard to know who is on what side when Salvatore, the Mafia, the changing governments, the police, and the Carabinieri (the national military) are discussed from scene to scene. There are flaws here and there, but for me, the strength and power of the first hour wins out. If it's a little heavy-handed at times, so be it -- ooh, Salvatore's dead body looks like Jesus! -- but when it works, it's a great example of the power of film.

Salvatore Giuliano (1962): ***/****

1 comment:

  1. Glad you reviewed this. I'm a big fan of Salvatore Giuliano. It's basically a '70s conspiracy drama 10 years too early (and its influence on Battle of Algiers is pretty obvious), but a very effective movie in its own right. I know little about the historical background but it's a remarkable movie.

    Can't agree that it runs out of steam in the second half, that's where the meatiest material is. Anti-government conspiracy theories in American politics tend to run towards the absurd. In Europe, especially in the Cold War era, they weren't so farfetched. Keeping in mind events like Operation Gladio, you don't need to suspend disbelief so far as with, say, JFK or The Parallax View

    As a nitpick, the Carabinieri are a national constabulary like the French gendarmes. I think the movie even makes the distinction between them and the regular army.