Blu-ray Review: Salvatore Giuliano


Starring: Frank Wolff, Salvo Randone
Director: Francesco Rosi
Rating: 9/10

Salvatore Giuliano – the Sicilian Robin Hood, so-called – might give his name to the title, but in all other respects he’s an elusive figure in this classic docudrama. We see him mainly from the back, in a white dust coat and sporting cap, forever darting out of view. The only time we get a really good look at him is when he’s lying in the morgue. (That’s not a spoiler, the film opens with his death, shot three times in mysterious circumstances.)

But then this is no conventional portrait of a popular hero. It’s a demystification, a cool-headed inquest. And anyway, director Francesco Rosi is less interested in Giuliano as an individual than in what his rise and fall tells us about the nature of power in Italy in the post-war years.

The script is a model of clarity, moving around freely in time, following the evidence rather than the chronology, and explaining the situation so that even a non-Italian viewer can become versed in the subtleties at work. The film breaks broadly into two halves – the discovery of Giuliano’s body and the subsequent official proceedings, intercut with flashbacks to his infamous career, and then a trial concerning the involvement of his men in the notorious Portella della Ginestra massacre of 1947, when eleven peasants celebrating May Day were murdered. We learn how Giuliano, a mountain bandit, was recruited to fight for Sicilian independence, and how, once that was achieved, he was abandoned by his political paymasters and became a thorn in their side, taking to kidnapping and extortion. And we see the more and more extreme attempts made by the police and army to dislodge him, with the people of his hometown Montelepre caught in the middle. What emerges in a picture of a ruling elite where everyone is in bed with everyone else. “Outlaws, police and the Mafia – they are an unholy trinity,” says Giuliano’s second-in-command at one point. And there are questions – how exactly did Giuliano die? And were his men really involved in the Portella della Ginestra massacre, and if so, who put them up to it?

Throughout, the tone is cool, dry, dispassionate, unemotive, Rosi’s own undoubted fury held in check. Filming in the actual locations where much of this took place, using locals as actors, Rosi achieves a level of authenticity which isn’t just impressive for its own sake, it’s also highly revealing – looking at the town of Montelepre, with its gaunt, closed in houses, you instinctively grasp the psychology of a people who respond to representatives of centralized authority with stubbornness and silence.

Dramatically, the story may be all shades of grey, but visually, Rosi plays with great slabs of light and shade. He shoots from low down, creating monolithic, mythical images. Sunlight pours down from overhead on stark landscapes and townships that seem to etch themselves onto the screen – monuments of permanence that people move across like shadows. In a way, the film conveys a contradictory message. Rosi’s documentary impulse suggests that all this can and must change; his bleak, scorching vision of Sicily suggests the opposite, that it will never be other than what it is. But those are the sorts of tensions that make a piece of art vital and fascinating.

This Blu-ray boasts a 4K restoration from the original camera negative, with a restored soundtrack. It’s simply one of the best HD transfers of a black-and-white film you’re likely to see. Detail is fine-grained, the blacks of cars and umbrellas satisfyingly inky. The deep focus camerawork is pitilessly sharp. Throughout, the actors stand out in an almost 3D way against the rugged scenery. You’ll have your own favourite shots, but mine includes the early top-down view of the dead Giuliano, surrounded by police, reporters and gawpers. Another set-up that comes across very well is the one where the army draw up for a dawn raid on Montelepre, with the town on the hill ahead and the rocky skyline (Giuliano’s domain) beyond – three layers of the story caught in one telling image.

Turning to the extras, first up is a 55-minute Italian-made documentary from 2001. Filmed in his book-lined flat, Rosi talks about his early life, the start of his career in theatre and then working for Visconti, and he also airs his views on, in his own words, “the relationship between people and power.” He goes back to some of the locations of Salvatore Giuiiano and describes how he reconstructed the Portella della Ginestra incident with locals from nearby towns. Along the way there are some clips from his films, including a jarring one of James Belushi speaking dubbed Italian.

There’s also a more recent, 12-minute interview with Rosi, in which he explains why Giuliano is largely absent from the film. In addition, there’s a 14-minute featurette which revisits some of the movie’s locations; Giuliano’s nephew takes the opportunity to get a lot off his chest about Sicily’s ongoing grudges with mainland Italy. Finally, there’s a 10-minute piece in which a journalist roundly dismisses Giuliano’s reputation as the Sicilian Robin Hood and sums him up as a “Mafia hit man”, but also argues that his men were unlikely to have been responsible for the deaths at Portella della Ginestra. Given the recent Scottish referendum, there could hardly be a better time to rediscover a film which deals so powerfully with themes of local autonomy and a sense of disenfranchisement, and it’s well served by this excellent release from Arrow Video.