Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Salvatore Giuliano -- Francesco Rosi's 1962 Sicilian epic is unknown to American audiences. The film's subject matter is complicated and its politics indecipherable. Part of this movie's allure is its invitation to explore a history that was wholly unknown to me before watching this picture. Salvatore Giuliano is objective, pitiless, and wholly astounding -- the film is humbling in this respect: it reminds us that there are masterpieces, great films, that have completely eluded us. The world of cinema is vast and has many centers and just because you have seen 10,000 films doesn't mean that there isn't concealed, just beyond the horizon of the familiar, an undiscovered picture possessing strange and amazing power. Salvatore Giuliano is hard to assimilate to a view of film history focusing on Hollywood and Hollywood's critics, the counter-Hollywood, in Paris and at Cinecitta and Japan. The film seems rooted in Italian neo-realism, but the picture seems bigger, more dauntless, and more vast in scope than most pictures in that genre. The movie that Salvatore Giuliano most resembles in Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers, a movie that now seems unimaginable without the precedent of Rosi's picture. In some respects, the movie expands on the sequence involving the doomed partisans at the conclusion of Rossellini's Paison, surely the most savagely objective and radical part of that film. But Salvatore Giuliano is even more relentlessly Homeric in its icy indifference to human suffering and its relentless portrayal of political betrayal. An outlaw, forced into the barren mountains, fights first against the local police, then, against the Fascists, and, finally, as a monarchist and separatist, leads a guerilla war for Sicilian independence -- this is the title character. The guerilla fighters, as in many insurgencies, can't be defeated but neither can they win the war. A political solution is reached and the guerillas, led by Giuliano, previously supported by the United States (did you know that America briefly supported Sicily's independence from Italy?), become terrorists and affiliates of the Mafia. Giuliano is gunned-down in an ambush -- the exact truth of the guerilla fighters final shoot-out is contested by a mob of Roman journalists who skitter up and down the desolate, ruinous streets of Palermo like the crowds of paparazzi in La Dolce Vita. After the guerilla leader's death, a show-trial of his associates is convened, ostensibly for the purpose of determining the identities of fighters who participated in a massacre of local communists at a May Day celebration. The trial is violent chaos, the guerillas confined in seething groups in big iron cages, crowds of lawyers shouting questions and objections from the floor, ranks of weary judges and a gallery of hooting, shrieking spectators. Curiously, the trial scenes are more violent and vehement, then, the abstract combat sequences visualized as men crouching in a jagged terrain of boulders on mountain slopes firing machine guns at scarcely visible targets. Rosi's innovation in this film is to never show the title character except at great distance or as a corpse lying in a puddle of blood in a courtyard shot from a pitiless -- the adjective necessarily applies again and again to this film -- overhead angle. (Later, we see the dead man framed like Mantegna's Christ on a slab with huge wedges of ice around him.) As far as I can determine, Giuliano has no dialogue in the film and is a shadowy figure -- I'm not sure that we see him closely enough in any of the battle or truce scenes to identify him. Accordingly, the film is radically decentered -- we see violence, but it seems to be the effect of social and historical conditions and remains curiously impersonal. Rosi compensates for the film's indifference to its title character by staging highly emotional scenes involving peripheral characters -- a strategy that gives the film its epic character and that prevents the violence and political maneuvering from becoming purely and inertly schematic. We see Giuliano's mother as a ghostly figure in black grieving over her son's corpse -- her high-pitched keening is primordial, prehistoric, like something from an age before Greek tragedy; a shepherd lured into joining the guerillas throws himself on a prison floor and weeps like a girl about being separated from his family. Rosi's objective camera shows a riot in which a vast crowd of aggrieved women, appalled to see their men hauled off to Palermo, attack the police -- the staging of the scene is rational, geometric, primarily analytical with overhead shots predominating: the women surge forward and the carabinieri lock their rifle butts together to oppose them while, in the background, the army trucks freight the men away. The women's ferocity is palpable as is the despair of the arrested peasants and the confusion and panic of the soldiers. In a Hollwood film of this kind (and this is a misnomer -- there really aren't Hollywood films like this), a picture like Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata, the women's attack would serve a plot point, the men would be saved or the violence would escalate into a massacre and some sort of narrative would arise from these intensely dramatic images. Rosi is content to simply record the women's desperate assault on the police -- it accomplishes nothing; men with guns will always repel unarmed women. Nonetheless, Rosi's skill at staging episodes of this kind, frequently played-out in deep space, is nothing short of astonishing -- his battle scenes encompass vast mountain landscapes and, yet, are as precisely and lucidly observed as the gunfights in an Anthony Mann western, there is an indelible sense for light, terrain, the texture of weathered walls, and ancient boulders. The massacre of the communists, filmed mostly from a great distance, is like the representation of a great, impersonal force of nature -- an ebb and flow of human beings and flags and horses across a heartless landscape as barren as Monument Valley. Rosi uses non-professional actors, presumably the people to whom these events occurred only a few years earlier (Giuliano was murdered in 1950) and he stages his action sequences in hugely extended takes that range over acres of territory -- one scene in which police round-up suspected guerillas fluidly moves across a half-dozen city blocks, recording five or six arrests, each particularized, each featuring a new and distinct chorus of screaming women, the whole thing intensely palpable, true-to-life, and intricate and all done in one tracking shot. A film without a hero, even without any real protagonists, Salvatore Giuliano seems to me a unique masterpiece.