Francesco Rosi

film 1 of 3

Salvatore Giuliano

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 29, 2015

It appears that The Battle of Algiers was not unprecedented after all, and that La Terra Trema did too have its descendants. Claims to the contrary are probably merely enthusiastic, or designed to sell copies of the former/reclaim the latter. No harm, maybe, but sometimes we ought to resist the urge to particularize and super-celebrate such works. Extended conversations and repeating patterns may not be as fascinating as prodigies and one-offs, but they’re probably more helpful. After all Pontecorvo and Visconti and Rosi have subjects, as well as a set of approaches thereto, that deserve much more than aesthetical enshrinement or Romance. This is an important point. At some point we have to resist generalization and hyperbole. They are, after all, mostly motivated by commerce. Or by how much easier it is to pass on threadbare received wisdom. Yes to great films and filmmakers, within reason. But films and filmmakers can never be as great or important as their subjects.

To Rosi’s film, then. Salvatore Giuliani hardly appears in it! At one point another character talks about uncovering the many faces of political manipulation. He helps us understand the provocative indirectness of this entire production, its eventually dizzying array of individuals set within an only slightly less dizzying array of factions. Forward and back, here and there—it’s challenging to keep up with it all. Part of that may be that this Canadian doesn’t really have sufficient background. Not really the Canadian’s fault, but that doesn’t mean that the Italian, treating this important Sicilian subject, has to adjust or simplify for him, either.

Culture industries tend to eschew the regional, and the local details that go beyond or beneath mere picturesqueness. A pity. A disaster! That Watergate shot in Forrest Gump may be okay once in a while, but if it were always and only that we might never learn and grow and fix things. And actually, the fact that the Watergate shot is so easy, and that it seems to give the impression of sufficiency and even totality, suggests that it’s not really okay after all, even once in a while. Challenge us! Either we’ll be humble, or motivated to make up the shortfall, or get to the point where we have learned enough to listen and understand (cf. the stirring Neapolitan abundance of Rosi’s Mani Sulla Citta [q.v.]).

How do we do all of this? Look at the exemplary opening of this film, in which the local functionary exactly describes and documents the conditions at the scene of the crime. (At this point let’s not worry about the fact that he’s being disingenuous, to say the least.) Patiently, calmly, exactly—couldn’t we, shouldn’t we all be accountants, or surveyors, or enumerators? That’s how you measure and attend to and affect things. Here’s more of that notion of the adult movie, in the deepest sense.

The land and the town make really powerful impressions. So do the people. What did they say—there are two actual actors in the entire cast? As usual with these cinema direct situations, that fact shows, and it doesn’t matter at all. That’s because beneath the technical insufficiency lies a vast authenticity. That authenticity registers at the most basic and specific level, in the areas of vestment and gesture and vocal inflection. Sicilians are emotionally demonstrative, it would appear! It puts you in mind of the remarkable howling that goes on in the more or less contemporaneous Rocco and His Brothers (by Visconti!).

Again, finally, the narrative complexity operating here is quite challenging, but it’s less difficult to keep up with a similar variation in Rosi’s manner of staging his action. Neo-realism and expressionism, and a few more approaches besides, alternate. This is what Brechtians do, and Rosi does it really well. (The murder under the street lamps!) And aside from social and historical specifics, these techniques illuminate and signify beyond the strictly local levels at which they seem to be operating. We encounter the unfamiliar, but we can extrapolate!

A challenge then, and a reproof, and a refreshment.