Saturday Editor’s Pick: Salvatore Giuliano (1962)

by on August 1, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Aug 6 at 2:00, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


Judy Bloch’s program notes for the BAM retrospective of Italian director Francesco Rosi, which opens Wed, Aug 3 and continues through Sun, Aug 21:

A committed leftist and an equally committed modernist, Francesco Rosi offers a body of films whose political and emotional impact is almost purely visual. Two great cinematographers—Gianni Di Venanzo for the black-and-white films and Pasqualino De Santis for the films in color—are his important collaborators. Pauline Kael wrote, “Rosi has one of the greatest compositional senses in the history of movies. . . . We’re led by the camera, and we trust its movement. Something more is always going to be revealed. Rosi is discovering life.”


Dan Callahan in his essay for Alt Screen:

A framing sequence re-stages the famous, final photograph of the real Giuliano and is then intercut with chronologically shuffled scenes inspired by the then recent past. Rosi’s oblique and elliptical portrait of his largely unseen protagonist is also, emphatically, a call to arms for the mezzogiorno, and Rosi mainly casts the film with non-professionals from the region, some of whom were actually involved in the events portrayed. Salvatore Giuliano is not the story of a man but the story of cities and countries and all of the people in them, and so it is necessarily more diffuse than most movies, and much harder to classify.


Rosi frames every shot in this film for maximum impact, and his compositions sometimes feel almost too balanced, flirting with mere pictorialism, but there is always a discernable intellectual query behind each image that makes us ponder where we are and why. Stubbornly, Rosi refuses to involve his audience in individual psychology, and he instinctively resists the safety net of narrative. The constantly moving formations of people on screen can seem like pure visual abstraction, but the questioning at the heart of Salvatore is concrete, dedicated to unearthing information; this is not at all an existential film, which would have put it in line with the smart-set fashion of its time.


Rosi specializes in scenes of violence and misery that he makes somewhat beautiful with his camera. It’s as if by aestheticizing suffering he wishes not only to make it instructive, to show it is as the avoidable result of specific political vendettas and cover-ups, but also, through his camera, to ennoble it.



Michael Ciment for The Criterion Collection:

With Salvatore Giuliano (1961), Francesco Rosi developed the style and method that would make him, during the sixties and seventies, the greatest political filmmaker of his time. If Sergei Eisenstein could be considered the master of political cinema in the first half of the twentieth century, Rosi, in a way his peer, offers a totally different approach to the realities of power. Joseph Goebbels, allegedly an admirer of the Russian director’s films, would have been unable to endorse Rosi’s analytical conclusions. Eisenstein uses the tools of propaganda, playing chiefly on emotion and a Manichean view of the world. Rosi, though able to provoke deeply sensitive reactions from his spectators, always manages to make them think by tracking down and exposing the lies that obscure the inquiries and the scandals of our societies. His filmography can be viewed as a vast panorama of the historical past of his country, as well as its present.


The impact of Salvatore Giuliano and the authenticity of its images have led some to see it as a documentary. But if Rosi made a documented film, what he shows us is the result of a patient and inspired reconstruction. There has never been a film that aimed more strongly at destroying romantic illusions, at deflating the very spirit of the epic, while at the same time offering more beauty, more potential to inspire a kind of epic passion in the viewer that at any moment can carry political awareness into a new dimension. A Neapolitan by birth, Rosi brings together the two cultural tendencies of his native city: rationalism inherited from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and an emotional drive that turn towards death and tragedy. His filmmaking brings about a fusion of the realism of the Rossellini of such films as Paisà (1946) and the formal splendor of the Visconti of La terra trema (1948). From this we can conclude the following: Truth is beauty; Beauty is truth.



Stuart Klawans for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 1995):

EXTERIOR: DAY. A young man lies face-down in a Sicilian courtyard, bloodstains visible on his shirt, a handgun and a rifle by his side. Around him are gathered perhaps a dozen living men–cops and town officials. One, circling the corpse, is busy dictating an inventory; item by item, he translates the enigmatic physical reality of this scene into bureaucratic language, which will soon prove to be no less enigmatic, and no less disturbing, than the body itself. Such is the opening of Salvatore Giuliano, the film that established Francesco Rosi’s reputation. Using a gambit he would frequently play again, Rosi hooks the audience with the mystery of a violent death, then spends the next 107 minutes refusing to solve it. Why should he? In that opening sequence, Rosi already has laid bare what he conceives to be the real mystery: the process by which potentially disruptive events yield to official control. Bureaucratic language turns out to be the most dangerous weapon used in Salvatore Giuliano–so dangerous that the town official, in describing the corpse, might be said to murder the title character right before our eyes.


“In the general economy of the stories,” Rosi told Overbey, “personal lives have no real importance.” Some of the protagonists bore the names and manners of well-known figures; others were entirely made up. But during these key years, Rosi’s view of character was consistently long-distance, so audiences would understand that his films were not so much “based on a true story” as “based on a true social force Watching Salvatore Giuliano, we rarely see the Sicilian bandit leader, who comes into closeup only when laid out for burial. Nottola, the politician and real estate developer who is at the center of Hands Over the City (’63), goes through the entire film with his son in hiding from the police; yet we don’t hear him voice any concern, nor do we get a single glimpse of his family life. The title character of Lucky Luciano (’73) does come before the camera; every few minutes he even speaks occasionally; but he never does much of anything, except to smile knowingly and eat his dinner. As for Rogas, the detective who provides the point of view for Illustrious Corpses, Rosi grants him one scene at home, which is just enough to establish that he is divorced and lonely–and, more important, that he realizes his phone is tapped. Salvatore Giuliano “was the first film in which I felt I had mastered the delicate balance between reality itself and an interpretation of reality,” Rosi has said.



Rosi in an interview with Cineaste:

The political function of a film is to provoke and sometimes films produce results. I don’t think films can change politics or history, but sometimes they can influence events. For example, thanks to the public showings of Salvatore Giuliano in 1962, two Italian politicians–Girolamo Li Causi of the Italian Communist Party and Simone Gatto of the Italian Socialist Party–called for the establishment of the first Antimafia Commission. A few months after the first screenings of the film, Parliament agreed to establish the commission because, in the face of a film like this–which documented the cooperation between the Mafia, government institutions, and the various police forces in Italy–it could no longer deny to the public the existence of such activities.


Salvatore Giuliano was made almost entirely without professional actors because I wanted to make it, in a very real sense, as a psychodrama psychodrama. That is, I wanted to shoot in the places where Giuliano had lived, in the town where he was from, under the eyes of his mother and family, in the courtyard where his body was found, and, above all, with the participation of many of the people who ten years earlier had known Salvatore Giuliano and who had lived with him.


I wanted to involve these people in my film because I was sure their participation would convey elements of their suffering. In the scene shot in Montelepre, for example, where the women rush from their homes to the town square to protest the army’s arrest of their husbands and sons, these women had been involved in the actual events. I knew that involving them in the film would provoke a huge emotional response, a remembrance of what had happened to them.


Tom Milne on Salvatore Giuliano for Time Out (London):

The film that first brought Rosi international recognition: a masterly semi-documentary about – or rather around – the notorious Sicilian bandit, told in a series of flashbacks taking off from scenes recreating the discovery of his bullet-riddled body in July 1950, his laying-out and burial, and the trial of his associates. If Giuliano himself remains an enigma as the centrepiece of the jigsaw – deliberately so, since Rosi refuses to guess at mysteries – the complex lessons offered by his life and death in terms of Sicilian society and Mafia politics are laid out with exemplary clarity. Stunningly shot in stark black-and-white by Gianni Di Venanzo.



Doug Cummings for Cinema Journey:

Godard once famously remarked that the best way to critique a film is to make another one, and Rosi’s film poses an argument for a proper cinematic approach to historical films in rigorous terms. Rosi stylistically constructs a careful fiction that remains as true to the facts as possible. (“You cannot invent, in my opinion,” he once said, “but you can interpret.”)


Despite the formal rigidity, the film addresses some of the significant social problems that affected the agricultural people of Southern Italy after the war and stages several scenes of raw emotionality. When the Italian military conducts sweeping arrests in a town sympathetic to Giuliano, the women of the town rush through the streets en masse in protest; when Giuliano’s mother (a local nonprofessional actress who had lost her own son to violence) identifies Giuliano’s body, her intensive sobs were so genuine, Rosi claimed he reduced the number of takes out of concern for her well-being.


In presenting the facts of this era through strenuous research and a provocative structure that stresses evidence over explanations, Salvatore Giulianosucceeded in revealing many details previously hidden to the public and continues to prompt reflection. It’s a film that helped inaugurate the “political cinema” of the ’60s and particularly influenced Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966)–both films even shared the same screenwriter, Franco Solinas.


Derek Malcolm for The Guardian:

Rosi performed the voiceover himself, at least in the Italian version, and structured the film round the bandit’s death. Giuliano is seen as a corpse in the first sequence, with a city official reading a detailed description of his death. This gives us no clue to the questions we want answered – a deliberate ploy by Rosi, who is determined that we should think for ourselves as the film progresses. He merely provides evidence, often elliptical. But the result is a fascinating study not only of the tentacles of crime, but of a whole way of life.


Everything in the film was based on extensive historical research, including official court records and journalistic accounts. But Rosi makes no attempt to make complete sense of them, since it is virtually impossible to do so. At the end of the film, what Rosi has carefully assembled is not so much the facts as a reading of what lies behind the confused story of Giuliano’s life.


Possibly only Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers managed so brilliantly to summarise a slice of by now half-remembered history, and Rosi never quite achieved the same mastery of tone and atmosphere again. But Salvatore Giuliano has never been bettered as an interpretation of history without resort to special pleading. It’s as if the film-maker is standing back and providing clues that we have to interpret ourselves. This is something Hollywood would never do, and justifies European cinema as much as any other film of what now looks like a golden period.


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