Salvatore Giuliano

Year: 1961. Running time: 125 minutes. Black and white. Directed by Francesco Rosi. Starring Frank Wolff. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. In Italian with optional English subtitles. Mono. DVD release by The Criterion Collection.

Review by David Gurevich

In a sense, Francesco Rosi, whose most famous film, Salvatore Giuliano, has just been issued on DVD by The Criterion Collection, is the opposite of Vittorio De Sica. Any De Sica movie is more accessible than Giuliano, a story of a Sicilian bandit killed in 1950. But that doesn't mean Giuliano isn't worth the effort. Rosi was a political documentalist by calling, but he wisely decided that a well-made pseudo-documentary is an even more effective vehicle to promote his ideas.

That doesn't mean Rosi was an early Michael Moore. Where the latter is all over the top with his carpet-bombing demagoguery, Rosi employed subtlety and precision. Salvatore Giuliano is a strange fruit that was truly innovative in its time (1961): there are only two professional actors (you can tell the locals by their operatic delivery, which reminded me of Tornatore's incomparable Starmaker); the non-linear story jumps back and forth in time; and most strikingly, the title character is hardly on the screen.

The real Giuliano's story is confusing enough — depending on how cynical you are. Apparently, in 1945, Sicily was swept by separatism, and the pragmatic movement leaders drafted Giuliano, who was already on the run from the law, as a "colonel" in the "liberation" army. Giuliano's picciotti, or "boys," fought the guerrilla war with a vengeance, and the Army responded in kind: the occupiers v. the occupied sequences would not look out of place on the screen even today, somewhere between Ulster and Iraq. Finally the movement managed to win autonomy concessions from the young postwar Italian government. Yet the success did not allow Giuliano to come down from the mountains. Why not? Rosi plays games by never disclosing the official reason, but simply hinting that keeping Giuliano outside the law better suited the authorities, who could then use him for their own ends — like keeping the Communists out of power.

But it was the massacre of a Communist rally that brought unwelcome exposure to Giuliano. The national government decided it was all too much, and Giuliano was conveniently killed, presumably by the carabinieri. Soon thereafter, his right-hand man, Gaspare Pisciotta, who had betrayed and shot Giuliano (according to Rosi), was lethally poisoned in prison. Ten years later, in a scene painfully reminiscent of the massacre of Communists, the local mafia don who had served as an intermediary between the carabinieri and Pisciotta was also shot dead.

What are we to make of it? Certainly after years of exposure both in media and in film, no one would blink an eye at the news that the mafia, the landowners, and the government worked hand in hand to defeat the Sicilian Communists (never mind that the latter were likely to bring their own brand of corruption, but you'll have to go to Eastern European writers and filmmakers to find that, never Italian ones). This is province-wide corruption that goes beyond a simple conspiracy. But Rosi is clearly fascinated by the whole process of constant back-scratching and cover-up, by the elusiveness of truth. Aided by the great cameraman Gianni di Venanzo (who worked with both Fellini and Antonioni), Rosi marries the neo-realist, black-and-white, populist aesthetic to the mad media circus of La Dolce Vita, tosses in some minimalist alienation from Antonioni, makes the film jump back and forth in time without any markers (so that you realize you're back in the present only a few minutes after you're already in a sequence), and makes his despair so infectious that we would probably be disappointed to know the truth. Some of us are more comfortable believing that the authorities and criminals will always find a way to cut a deal and squash their opponents.

But for me, the most ingenuous touch was the quasi-presence of Giuliano on the screen. This is Rosi's sly innuendo style at its best: never show anything directly. And so Giuliani looms in the frame, deliberately set apart in his signature white duster, always there, but with his back to the camera, or with his face invisible or blurred in motion. If asked, Rosi might conceivably fall back on some Marxist nonsense about the "masses," not individuals, being agents of historical process, but for me this was just a real cool trick. And it worked. Good for him.

The DVD package comes with an audio commentary from Peter Cowie, a film historian, who starts off with some fresh observations but gradually finds himself in the position of a sports announcer forced to keep talking no matter what. If you're good with a fast-forward button, you might find him enjoyable.

Salvatore Giuliano is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new high-definition digital transfer with restored image and sound. The transfer has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. Special features: audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie; Francesco Rosi, a 55-minute documentary made for Italian television surveying the director's career and including special appearances by directors Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) and Martin Scorsese; new video interviews with Rosi and film critic Tullio Kezich; and an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.