Like many of the great Italian filmmakers to emerge from the nation’s immediate post-war years, Francesco Rosi doggedly bore the roots of his neorealist origins. But after having worked as an assistant on Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema (1948), one of the movement’s most astonishingly unique yet exemplary productions, Rosi nevertheless followed another path charted by his cinematic countrymen. Akin to Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Visconti himself, before long, Rosi took the fundamentals of Italian Neorealism, primarily its penchant for a gritty and unadorned realism, and began to augment those features with a more intentionally artful design and a more experimental narrative formula. Additionally, Rosi took this prescribed appreciation and assimilated the influence of the America crime film, direct, on-the-street exposés like Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948), with its combination of noir and newsreel. The merger enabled Rosi to achieve what he saw as an elemental aim of the cinema, that is, to bear witness to the times. This methodology involved copious research and a commitment to the facts, as well as the ambiguities, of any given subject. It was a process best realized in Rosi’s 1962 feature Salvatore Giuliano, a fascinating, perceptive and provocative look at a particular Italian region, the men and women who inhabit it and how all factors formed the short but riotous life of the film’s title subject.
Written by Rosi, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enzo Provenzale and Franco Solinas, Salvatore Giuliano opens with the death of its outlaw idol, in July of 1950, as a throng of onlookers, investigators and media agents flock around the young man’s bullet riddled body, now flayed out in some Castelvetrano courtyard. Giuliano had become something of a celebrated sensation, an enigmatic figure of rebellion and independence and a thorn in the side of so many varied factions that the possible identity of his assailant (or assailants) was virtually limitless. Rosi approaches this fatal opening with a journalistic ambivalence that continues throughout the film, as the full extent of what transpired in the final hours of Giuliano’s life is left to the murky testimony of inconsistent witnesses and the repercussions of his demise are embroiled in an abstruse aftermath. The search for clarification, for answers where they may or may not be found, informs the flashback structure of Salvatore Giuliano, and that such certainties are to perhaps never be obtained is in large part a central theme of Rosi’s film.
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As Rosi assembles the assorted elements of Giuliano’s later life (he was just 23 when he died), it becomes clear that these biographical matters are far less prescient than the social factors that incase his rise, his brief albeit potent seven-year reign and his definitive fall. One by one, Rosi seeds Salvatore Giuliano with incidents from the life and times of the man himself, from the formation of his ragtag militia, utterly devoted to their leader and their communal cause — “That’s what he wants,” says one subordinate, “so that’s what we’ll do” — to the violent charge of a separatist party committed to Sicilian unification. Action extends from the Palermo countryside of 1945, with its multiple bands of provincial outlaws, to the stuffy court proceedings in 1950 Viterbo. Rosi depicts the tentative elation of Sicily’s granted independence in May 1946 and shows the horrific massacre of congregating communists in Portella della Ginestra on May 1, 1947. The film follows the aggressive carabinieri who add to the public hostilities, and Rosi exhibits the subsequent arrests that seized the community. But more than anything, Salvatore Giuliano highlights a sprawling network of subversive collaboration and contention.
It’s a remarkable blend of historical consequence and contemporary reckoning, often moving back and forth with little in the way of explicit transition. The fragmentary assembly of each episode gradually adds to the mosaic whole of Salvatore Giuliano, though, and the revelatory passages convey an intricate web of intrigue, surrounding not just Giuliano’s death, but his life in general. The film hones in on an ephemeral time just after the war, when new forms of engagement were enhancing and expanding, and the role of the mafia could meld with the bureaucratic mechanisms of a burgeoning state. With this is a visual depiction of criminal conversion, as the rustic, rural outlaws soon don suits and ties, as they move from on-foot pursuits along the hillside to sleek automobiles cruising down city thoroughfares, and as an insurgent, instinctive revolt shifts to a measured scheme of kidnapping and blackmail. Little changes in terms of criminal temperament, however. As one official declares, Giuliano and his men have simply gone from being outlaws in the mountains to outlaws in the streets. It’s a fitful transition, but a natural one, just like the century-spanning development of the mob; among its more incisive virtues, Salvatore Giuliano gives the sense of a raw, rising underworld, one not yet processed by popular culture.
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Initially called Sicilia 1943 — 1960, Salvatore Giuliano retains the regional portrait such a title suggests, encompassing a comprehensive yet never insupportable range of topical touchstones, enlivening a specific time and place rife with social volatility and political instability. Giuliano had his fair share of supporters and detractors, modest landowners and those with an international curiosity in his accomplishments and failures. He was subject to parliamentary cover-ups and opposing blocs to the north and beyond. Still, seen either as a corpse, a barely glimpsed outline rushing about in flowing white coat or as a calm voice in the darkness, Giuliano is less a distinctive protagonist (or even antagonist) than he is a representative figure of analogous import. In addition to signifying the personified upheaval of this isolated, in many ways abandoned segment of Italian culture, Giuliano is the embodiment of opposing and concerted forces, and through his story, Rosi pulls back the conspiratorial curtain of true authoritative influence. As a tool for the fluctuating powers that be, Giuliano is shown to be a man of many masters, but one who simultaneously stakes a claim of his own as a force to be rivaled, vilified and venerated.
Much of the shrouded maneuvering so central to Salvatore Giuliano is brought to light in the final scenes of the picture, when a trial introduces a litany of players and pawns, casting doubt on everyone from the politicians in Rome to the unknowing lackeys in Sicily. Rosi envelops the story of Giuliano in a convoluted labyrinth of mafioso, legal institutions, political parties and military installations. And as he would similarly examine in Hands Over the City (1963), Rosi presents an inscrutable emergence of collusion and dependency, best summarized by a bewildered general: “The carabinieri contacted the Mafia, whose relationship with the outlaws is hard to define. It’s unclear whether they were one and the same thing, or whether the Mafia spawned the outlaws.” In any case, Salvatore Giuliano the man, and by extension the film, becomes a conduit for betrayal, for corruption and for degrees of illicit political manipulation. Giving voice to this complex interplay, and exposing his own dubious stance, is Giuliano’s right-hand man, Gaspare Pisciotta, played by San Francisco-born Frank Wolff. Wolff would soon be a staple in some of the best Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, and with Salvo Randone as the President of the Court of Assize, he was one of just two professional actors cast in Salvatore Giuliano. In what is surely the most vociferous performance in the film, he conveys the pent-up anxieties of a man in the middle of this encircling tumult, obscured in deep shadows on the night of his compatriot’s termination; at the same time, he expresses furious frustration with an equivocal systemic crisis, debating the confessional validity of Giuliano’s supposed memoir and the legitimacy of compromised statements made under duress.
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Rosi refuses to flinch from the harsh realities of the situation, filming the action with a brutal directness and the striking visual potency of a photographic record. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a human touch. Though he maintains an observationally detached view of the knotty goings-on, Rosi proffers a powerful perception of anguish and unease, from the sorrow of Giuliano’s wailing mother as she falls over her departed son, recently preserved within a wall of block ice, to the tragic progression of one thing after another for the ordinary citizenry caught up in the commotion. No sooner have they survived the horrors of World War II than these unassuming men and women are thrust in the midst of this dogmatic showdown. Rosi turns a sensitive eye to the masses, shown in expansive wide shots, in moments of frantic movement and paralyzed stasis, frightfully appearing in the windows that overlook streets teeming with police or scrambling on the ground for the simple necessities of life, like water from a well. Many of those seen in Salvatore Giuliano, rounded up and violated, are people unjustly guilty by regional association, suggesting the good and bad of being identified with a particular location so distinct as Sicily. If not exactly coerced, some hapless locals are swept away in the revolutionary torrent of the time, acting out of destitution, desperation and devotion, while in the present day, they are at the mercy of an unfeeling patchwork of law enforcement, judicial interpretation and motley spectator testimony.
Appropriately, then, the actual people who lived through the depicted incidents of Salvatore Giuliano were vital to its (re)creation, reliving the genuine panic of the May Day massacre, testifying to the post-war conditions and, in some cases, providing details that were ultimately incorporated into the screenplay. Similarly, the Sicilian environment is key to the film’s authenticity. Illustrating the clusters of homes scattered about the mountain terrain, and the multitudes traversing its rocks and valleys, Rosi and legendary cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo render the landscape in a blanket of blazing sunlight, befitting the intensity of the director’s searing vision. Having already worked with Antonioni on films from Le Amiche (1955) to L’Eclisse (1962), and soon to engage with Fellini on films like 8½ (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965), Di Venanzo traces character advancement in an impressive choreography of ominous agencies who descend on the small town and the locals who defy the incursion. He and Rosi canvas the setting as if the camera just happens to capture what unfolds, picking up what transpires with a stylish, fluid spontaneity of space and movement. Amplified by the sounds of whistling signals, staccato gunfire and Piero Piccioni’s commanding score, and boosted by the intermittently urgent pace of editor Mario Serandrei, another prolific figure in Italian cinema, Salvatore Giuliano is a thoroughly concentrated work of formal conviction.
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Born in Naples, in November 1922, Rosi had an invested interest in the history of his homeland. And in a film like Salvatore Giuliano, he presents the material warts and all. Characters are burdened by both obstinate allegiance and obstruction, by pervasive truth and lies, and by the strictures of a so-called “wall of silence,” a tried-and-truism of the Mafiosi code. With a populace projected onto the persona of a single man, Rosi makes no excuses nor justifications. His voiceover narration is as much a factual play-by-play as it is a reminder of the bloodshed and rampant misconduct left in the wake of Giuliano’s struggle. Alternatively, Rosi is aware of Giuliano’s anti-authority appeal; he is emblematic of desired rebellion just as others are generally archetypal incarnations of their respective field. Yet Giuliano remains elusive, inconcrete in the sense of being a developed personality but illustrative of an objective shared the world over. Salvatore Giuliano is therefore a daringly indefinite motion picture, as Rosi leaves several aspects open to interpretation and denies elucidation where there possibly wasn’t any to begin with. He poses questions like the hovering newsmen seen in the film, piecing together the record as a means of narrative incentive and a matter of historical disorder, but there are no conclusions conveniently drawn and no sense of decisive finality. Some may decry Rosi’s sustained objectivity, failing to appreciate that depiction does not equal declaration or endorsement. But with that, there is in Salvatore Giuliano a valuable sociopolitical insight, for what Rosi posits is that it’s okay to remain unsure about something this complicated, that it’s acceptable to maintain a level of considered nuance in what is never a black and white world. Some events, and some people, can be two things at once.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.