"The outlaws are those who call themselves honest men."—Gaspare Pisciotta
The impact on cinema of the 1961 release of Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano is similar to the impact Truman Capote's In Cold Blood would have on literature five years later. Both works radically redefined established lines between the presentation of fact and fiction, reportage and narrative artifice. Rosi's examination of the murder of a notorious Sicilian bandit was stylistically revolutionary in the way it examined political corruption while avoiding neorealism's polemic excesses. The film also played a key role in the future of world cinema because its focus on corruption, political obfuscation, and Omerta, the Sicilian code of silence, would prove a major influence on a plethora of filmmakers, most notably Americans Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. (Salvatore Giuliano's stamp is most obvious on Coppola's third installment of The Godfather series in which the smoke-filled rooms of high-level political manipulation are front and center; in what may be an overt nod to Rosi's film, Coppola even identifies the assassin, Mosca, as being from Montelepre, the Sicilian town in which the historical Salvatore Giuliano was born.)
Rosi's groundbreaking piece of cinema is now available on DVD in a two-disc Special Edition from the Criterion Collection.
Facts of the Case
On July 5, 1950, the body of bandit Salvatore Giuliano is found in an alley in the small town of Castelvetrano, Sicily. Giuliano had been a leader of EVIS, the Sicilian Voluntary Army of Independence, a separatist movement formed after allied forces released control of Italy back to Rome after World War II. Giuliano was gunned down in a shoot-out with carabinieri trying to arrest him for his involvement in the massacre of communists celebrating May Day at Portella della Ginestra in 1947. At least that's the official version of Giuliano's death.
The film opens with an overhead shot of the bandit's sprawled corpse, then moves back and forth in time, constructing a meticulous history of the events leading to his death based on eyewitness accounts, court documents, and newspaper reportage, as well as depicting the round-up and trial of his cohorts in the massacre—most notably his brother-in-law and lieutenant, Gaspare Pisciotta (Frank Wolff, Once Upon a Time in the West)—after the bandit's murder. In stark contrast to the official record, the film paints a portrait of collusion between separatist leaders, carabinieri and police, the Mafia, and Giuliano, the bandit's involvement in the May Day massacre on behalf of the separatists having become a dangerous liability once Sicily had achieved partial independence and the mantle of government legitimized the separatist leaders.
Salvatore Giuliano isn't an objective film as some critics have posited, but a film about objectivity. Unlike films that explore the nature of truth by confining their audiences in the limited perspectives of specific characters in order to emphasize the inherent subjectivity of truth (Kurosawa's Rashomon springs immediately to mind), Rosi's film maintains distance from all of the characters in order to create a sense of detached objectivity. Giuliano is largely absent, seen either as a corpse or a faceless figure leading his gang. Unlike Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, there is no reporter seeking the story's Rosebud (Rosi's partners suggested such a convention to him, but he refused). By the time Pisciotta emerges as an important character in the film's final act, we already distrust him and sense his culpability in Giuliano's death. Where Rashomon's and Kane's narratives are fractured by flashback, Salvatore Giuliano's nonlinear structure is organized thematically in order to put all of the available facts in the clearest context possible. When we jump from 1950 to 1943 in the film's first few minutes, for instance, there is no sense that what we're witnessing is someone's memory, warped or altered by the fog of time.
Film is subjective by nature, of course. Shot selection, actors' performance choices, decisions made in the editing room, all have an editorializing effect whether the filmmaker intends it or not. It would seem Rosi is trapped in a contradiction, except he's not trying to convince us he holds a monopoly on truth. Rather, his assertion is that objective truth exists, but is made impenetrable by the manipulations of powerbrokers. The source of epistemological uncertainty, then, is political not metaphysical (truth is elusive in Rashomon because of the human tendency toward self-deception). Salvatore Giuliano presents a series of objective facts that, in the end, fail to fully explain the circumstances of the death at the center of the film. The government officials' and carabinieri's success in inventing a false account of Giuliano's death that proves impenetrable to Rosi's meticulous reconstruction of events says something profound about the scope and potency of political power. That is the truth the film uncovers and objectively demonstrates despite its lack of final answers about Giuliano himself.
Though his film isn't neorealist, Rosi began as an assistant director under Luchino Visconti (The Leopard, The Damned) and the influence is obvious. Salvatore Giuliano is shot entirely in the Montelepre, Castelvetrano, and Portella della Ginestra locations where the real events took place. And only two professional actors appear in the film: Frank Wolff, who plays Pisciotta, and Salvo Randone (Fellini Satyricon) as the president of the court. The rest of the cast is played by Sicilian townspeople, many of whom were witness to the career and death of the historical Giuliano. As the film opens on Salvatore Giuliano's corpse, the actor is sprawled in the exact alley where the real Giuliano was gunned down. The most striking payoff of Rosi's insistence on authenticity is a scene in which Giuliano's mother is brought to the morgue by carabinieri to identify her son's body. Played by an old townswoman whose real son had suffered a fate very much like Giuliano's, her keening is powerfully real.
The film was shot by Gianni Di Venanzo, who lensed Fellini's 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits. Not only is his black-and-white photography gorgeous, but he manages to always have the camera exactly where it needs to be, giving us the information we need without intruding on the action or allowing anything to feel staged. It's a stunning piece of work and, luckily, it's done absolute justice on this DVD. In this case, Criterion was able to strike the transfer from the original camera negative, which had previously undergone a restoration. Other than a couple minor flaws, the 1.85:1 anamorphic image looks like it could've been shot in the past couple years—contrast is luscious, blacks deep, whites brilliant. Detail is amazing. It's not quite on par with Criterion's near-perfect transfer of the aforementioned 8 1/2, but it's awfully close.
Audio is 1-channel mono in Italian, and optional English subtitles are provided. There are a couple spots where dialogue is muffled and difficult to make out, but that appears to be a source flaw. Otherwise, the track is a solid, hiss-free reproduction of the original, just as it should be.
In addition to the feature, Disc One of this two-disc set contains a theatrical trailer and a feature-length audio commentary by Peter Cowie, author of Revolution!: The Explosion of World Cinema in the '60s. The commentary is indexed into 25 chapters for easy access to specific topics, and Cowie does a masterful job covering the film's place in Italian and world cinema; background on the historical events that inspired the film, including the minutiae of Sicilian politics of the era and the conflict between the Christian Democratic Party and socialists and communists; and Rosi's sensibilities and approaches to making the film. It's an exhaustively detailed track.
Disc Two features a recently-produced 19-minute featurette called Witness to the Times in which Rosi and film critic Tullio Kezich discuss the film's themes and why it isn't neorealist. Il Cineasta e il Labrinto (The Filmmaker and the Labyrinth) is a longer documentary, indexed in seven chapters. Produced in 2002, it runs 55 minutes and provides a fairly detailed personal and professional biography of Rosi. Contributors include directors Giuseppe Tornatore and Martin Scorsese, as well as film historian Michel Ciment.
A three-minute Italian newsreel from July 12, 1950 relays the official version of Giuliano's slaying the story the film seeks to debunk, but is most valuable because the ghastly crime scene photos demonstrate how precise Rosi was in his visual recreation.
Finally, the liner notes include an essay by Michel Ciment and brief reflections on the artistic significance of Salvatore Giuliano by Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, and Martin Scorsese.
All in all, the extras provide a veritable academic seminar on Rosi's magnificent film.
Salvatore Giuliano is neither an exercise in neorealist pedagogy nor a lurid gangster picture, but fans of either genre should find plenty to appreciate. Given the beautiful transfer of the film and substantive array of extras provided by Criterion, I highly recommend adding this one to your collection.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Scholar Peter Cowie
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