Sunday, June 17, 2012

Salvatore Giuliano (1962) - #228

Any small town in Italy can become a museum.

Even though Salvatore Giuliano doesn't rank too highly as a household name among the Criterion Collection's fan base (only 55 "Likes" at this moment, compared to over 1000 for The Game, which was just announced for a September 2012 release the day before I wrote this,) the real person referred to by the film's title, his handsome looks and the "Sicilian Robin Hood" myth attached to his reputation were all quite familiar to Italian viewers of 1962. Through international news reports, many others around the world also came to know about, and even admire, the impressive longevity of his outlaw exploits in postwar Italy as he eluded swarms of Carabinieri assigned to root out his band of armed rebel sharp-shooters from the rugged mountains and protective villagers who provided shelter and maintained their strict code of silence when asked to divulge the bandit's recent whereabouts. Born into a typical peasant family, Salvatore Giuliano began his insurgent-slash-criminal career as a young adult in 1943, when World War II was reaching the height of its fury. But he was spared enlistment in the Italian army when the Allies landed on his island and began their northward march that eventually led to first Mussolini's and then Hitler's downfall over the next two years.

Like many people at the time, Giuliano was involved in the black market trade, and one day exchanged gunfire with a military policeman that left him wounded and the cop dead. Eluding capture, he quickly employed his leadership charisma and innate organizational abilities to equip a gang of similarly dispossessed men with the weapons and skills they needed to present a formidable force advocating for Sicilian independence from mainland Italian rule. For a time, he enjoyed the status of a folk hero, using the surplus of his looting to support his community and thereby win their favor. In turn, Giuliano's popularity was exploited by regional politicians and other well-connected interests to advance their own agendas, resulting in a complicated network of seemingly contradictory alliances requiring strong dosages of deception and well-founded paranoia to navigate. More than a study of the man himself, Salvatore Giuliano is an examination and at least a partial dissection of the jumbled, violent, hypocritical authoritarian mess that despite its shortcomings, still maintained an unshakable grip on all aspects of Sicilian society.

The film that bears his name is not a biopic in any way - it's more like a recreation of the best documented and notoriously pivotal events that established Giuliano's legend, and controversies generated by the criminal prosecutions that followed his death, after most of his inner circle had been rounded up and held to account for their crimes. Watching the film brought to mind similar, more famous (in my circles) figures like Pretty Boy Floyd, John Brown and Che Guevara. I even thought about Osama bin Laden in his role as a larger-than-life character who inspired loyalty among hard-pressed Muslims for awhile before meeting his ignominious end. That association makes me anticipate Kathryn Bigelow's upcoming Zero Dark 30 just a little more than I already had, to see how or if she handles the covert skullduggery that goes into such an operation, or if she'll just shoot a glorified Navy SEAL recruiting video. Giuliano, who only appears elliptically on a few occasions in the film (mainly as a dead body,) remains an irreducible enigma at the center of it, a force of human nature that sets all sorts of events and destinies in motion without giving us any insight as to his deeper motivations or ultimate objectives.

Even though most of the political goals for an autonomous Sicily were eventually achieved in 1946, Giuliano's appetite for power proved much too enticing for him to willingly give up his authority when the cassus belli had expired. He kept his operation intact, moving on to ransom kidnappings and a violent protection racket, persecuting communists and other left-wing types up until the summer of 1950, when his corpse was found in a courtyard in the tiny village of Montelepre, his home town. After a brief voice-over introduction, the narrative begins, revealing Giuliano's dead body in close-up as it's being forensically documented, with a select media presence allowed in for a few strategic minutes to get the official story into the press, then quickly shooed away before they can ask too many questions.While starting a film by showing the end of its story then moving into flashback mode was already a well-established tradition by the early 1960s, director Francesco Rosi breaks up the telling by frequently jumping backward and forward in time, with only a few text overlays and brief narration (by Rosi himself) to orient us when we first encounter a new fragment of the visual evidence he's compiled. His technique is effectively disruptive in approximating  the difficulty faced by future investigators charged with the task of figuring out what exactly happened when Giuliano died. The cognitive dissonance is especially unsettling the first time through - we can practically smell the corruption and betrayal going on behind the scenes, but it's hard to determine exactly who is back-stabbing who. Repeated viewings result in even more uncertainty as we work our way through the material a second or third time and realize that the pieces of his puzzle simply don't connect very well.

Going into my first viewing of Salvatore Giuliano, I had no knowledge of this story, or of Francesco Rosi, who had made a few well-received films before this one but whose esteem and influence grew remarkably based on his work here. I really enjoyed the discovery of both his hard-edged documentary-like style and how he explores what had already become a flamboyant and easily glorified folk narrative by stripping it down to its taut essentials. A more conventional, less politically confrontational director could have played it much safer, but Rosi had a different purpose than mere commercial success. He deserves (and gets) a lot of credit for initiating a steely, realistic portrayal of contemporary political corruption in the cinema of his times, as he peels back of layers of secrecy and avoidance regarding the influence of organized crime in Italian society. And of course, when we're talking about organized crime in Sicily, we're dealing with the Mafia.

That word isn't used overtly in Salvatore Giuliano - instead, they employ the euphemism of "the honored society," even though the subtitles translate the phrase as "mafia" on a few occasion, presumably for the convenience of an English-speaking audience. For the context offered through its gritty and intensely authentic reconstruction of Sicilian life and social codes, this film ought to be considered mandatory viewing for just about everyone who considers themselves serious fans of Coppola's Godfather films or Martin Scorcese's numerous forays into the world of the Mob. By establishing Giuliano's roots as a member of an intensely loyal indigenous community fighting back against corruption and injustice, the film enhances our understanding and effectively demythologizes some of the prevailing stereotypes and glamorous pretensions attached to the Mafia in popular consciousness.


The trailer embedded above, presented without the clutter of unnecessary subtitles, effectively samples the major scenes and themes that Rosi put together. Building on the neorealist tradition that he grew up in as an assistant to Luchino Visconti on La Terra Trema, as well as less celebrated commercial work like Raffaello Matarazzo's Tormento, Rosi used non-professional actors (all but two of the performances were given by locals who basically played slightly fictionalized versions of the roles they occupied in Sicilian society) and long takes on the actual locations where the historic events took place. Rosi's ability to direct and capture massive crowd scenes boiling over with frenzied emotion is impressive, but it was also aided by the fact that most of the people in those scenes had personal memories of the incidents. In dramatic contrast to the notorious reticence of the Sicilian locals to divulge their secrets, it doesn't seem to take much prompting to trigger the famous volatility of the Sicilian temperament, and when they finally do go off, the cathartic potentials are capably exploited. Whether it's a street full of shrieking women spilling from their homes in order to protest the detention of all fighting-age men, the mournful wailing of a mother examining her son's corpse on a morgue slab, or the blind panic of a Mayday gathering suddenly come under fire from gunmen hidden in the crags of an ominous looming mountain, Rosi's assured mastery in capturing the pathos generated by these situations commands our attention.

Likewise, he also succeeds in his depiction of the nihilistic coldness and chaos of guerrilla war, the pitiful confusion of men caught up in conflicts too large and complicated for them to either escape or control, and the damnable confusion that confronts truth-seekers trying to figure out what really happened and who was responsible for it. That sense of disconnect, a perception that important information is being withheld, misrepresented or is irretrievably lost to the ravages of time, death, forgetfulness, deceit or omerta, provokes a sense of hardening skepticism toward officially endorsed versions of the truth. Though Salvatore Giuliano's local subject of mid-20th century Sicilian culture and politics may now seem distant and irrelevant to our concerns, its larger themes of corruption and hypocritical collusion between forces of law and crime in the shadowy backrooms of power certainly apply. Indeed, one of the most appalling aspects of watching the film was the realization of how relatively easy it was for Rosi and his peers to perceive and reveal the cover-up, the insurmountable gulf between the government account of Giuliano's death and the much more likely (but ethically messy) report of what really led to his demise. One lesson of history I've drawn from this movie is that the powers that be have gotten a lot more sophisticated and effective at covering their tracks.

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