Salvatore Giuliano: The Criterion Collection
Though not widely screened or celebrated today, Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano (1961) was something of a sensation when it made the film festival rounds in the early 1960s. Here was a movie that adopted most of the tenets of Italian Neorealism while purporting to restage history the rise and fall of the titular gangster who fought alongside the Sicilian separatists with a remarkable degree of verisimilitude. Utilizing the very locations where the film's key events actually took place, Rosi was whether he knew it or not creating a new genre: the docudrama. In a few years' time, Rosi's unique achievement would inspire Gillo Pontecorvo's searing The Battle of Algiers, which, unlike Salvatore Giuliano, retains the ability to jolt present-day audiences. Perhaps this is because Rosi, a very passionate man with equally passionate political convictions, has never had much interest in crafting agitprop cinema for the singular sake of inflaming discord. His primary responsibility has always been to the truth, and to that end, Salvatore Giuliano only depicts that which is known and thoroughly verifiable. Unfortunately, when dealing with a man who was mixed up with the Sicilian Mafia, this means that a large portion of the story must be omitted, leaving Rosi to work around his title character, which didn't trouble the director a bit he has a severe distaste for gangsters, and in particular the manner in which they've been romanticized throughout film history. What remains is a masterfully crafted picture in which heroes are absent, victims are few, and the truth is perpetually just out of reach. The film begins with Giuliano's bullet-riddled body being examined by police and military officials in a dead-end alley. Once the press are allowed in to photograph the crime scene, they immediately realize that things don't quite add up there's a suspicious lack of blood and no eyewitnesses to what was supposedly a protracted gunfight. From there, Rosi jumps backwards and forwards in time, seeking to illuminate how the young Giuliano went from being co-opted by the separatists at the age of 22 to being assassinated at 28. In between, Giuliano became a Robin Hood-esque folk hero who fought for the common man. But he also was responsible for hundreds of deaths, including (it would appear) the countryside massacre of May Day celebrating communists, for which Giuliano and his men pressed local shepherds into service. If Rosi intends for the viewer to sympathize with anyone, it's these ignorant farmers bullied into complicity. (Composer Piero Piccioni saves his one tragically melodic music cue for a scene of a young, doe-eyed farmer munching on bread as he awaits his fate after being summoned to Giuliano's ersatz rural compound.)
* * *
Eventually, Giuliano would be betrayed by his right-hand man, Gaspare Pisciotta (Frank Wolff), who would later die in prison under mysterious circumstances, further muddying the truth. Rosi's sure-handed flashback structure ably guides the viewer through the narrative's dense labyrinth of half-known truths, but his journalistic adherence to the facts often keeps the film from becoming as compelling as it might've been. Though Rosi's command of the medium, particularly his magnificently precise shot composition, is beyond reproach here, the picture lacks the vigor of the genre's best work, which is problematic one senses the director striving for immediacy. Had Rosi struck a more contemplative tone from the beginning, as he does in his measured adaptation of Christ Stopped at Eboli, the film might've been a more effective demystification of the overly romanticized outlaw lifestyle. Instead, it's a beautifully shot museum piece whose influences, ironically, can be seen in such mobster epics as The Godfather: Part II, Goodfellas, and City of God. Criterion presents Salvatore Giuliano in a nicely restored anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with crisp Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras on this two-disc set include a dryly informative commentary from film historian Peter Cowie, but the best stuff can be found on Disc Two. "Witness to the Times" (19 min.) is a brand-new, highly illuminating discussion with the 81-year-old Rosi and critic Tullio Kezich in which both share their recollections of the film's groundbreaking production. This is complemented by Il cineaste e il labirinto (55 min.), a documentary that offers up a more thorough portrait of Rosi's career, featuring commentary from Martin Scorsese, Giuseppe Tornatore, and (in writing) Federico Fellini. There's also an amusing Italian newsreel (3 min.) from 1950, which shows how the government carefully finessed the facts in reporting Giuliano's murder. Rounding out the set are a new essay from Michel Ciment and written tributes from Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese, and Fellini. Theatrical trailer, dual-DVD keep-case.