Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Salvatore Giuliano: A between film

Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1962) is unique in that it shows the convergence of various film movements. It’s a between film, a meeting point of neorealism (it’s based on a true story of rural peasants in post-WWII Italy and filmed on location) and the Italian art cinema of its era (the film was lit and shot by Gianni Di Venanzo, who worked with Antonioni and Fellini during the same period, and frequently employs deep focus composition and graceful camera movements).

At the same time, it points forward to the political filmmaking that emerged in the mid-to-late 1960s. Like many of those films, Giuliano bears the influence of direct cinema and documentary techniques. Handheld cameras follow children through the streets, and voiceover narration pops up to provide pertinent historical facts. The film maintains distance from its characters in both its narrative and camerawork. In fact, for most of the movie, there are no main characters; instead, groups and their activities become the focus of the film. In these ways, the film prefigures The Battle of Algiers, with whom it also shares a cowriter and a basic concern with actions, reactions, and techniques within revolutionary movements.

On top of this, there are a handful of scenes, featuring characters swaggering through the barren landscapes of the Sicilian hills, that point to spaghetti westerns.

It is fitting, then, that it plays so strangely. The movie seems to be cleaved in two: The first half is a dynamic look at unrest and guerrilla warfare in Western Sicily. The second half is a court procedural that lays out the links between the mafia, the military, the police, and the outlaws during that same period.

It’s hard not to prefer the film’s first half. It is there that the camera roves freely over the terrain and through the streets, hungry to survey the entire scene. It is in this portion of the film that social circumstances and their consequences are explored fully, through long shots of groups and individuals from above. This section of Giuliano is a document of who bears the burdens of military occupation, who is conscripted into fighting and why they fight. The second half seems too static, too tacked on, too focused on individuals, and, ultimately, too dry in its exposition.

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