Salvatore Giuliano

A few blogs back, I noted the latest issue of Cineaste includes the editors’ Ten Favorite Historical Films and sneaking in at tenth place is Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1961), a film which has recently been released as a 2-disc DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Its subject is a notorious mountain bandit who was recruited to lead the fight for Sicilian independence immediately following World War II. After the island was declared an autonomous region of Italy in 1946, Giuliano waged terrorist acts against communists until 1948 when conservatives took office, after which he engaged in various criminal activities until he was ostensibly shot by cabinieri police in 1950.

The trial of his captured men that followed, however, revealed a number of surprises: Giuliano was probably shot by one of his own lieutenants and the public account of his death was a staged coverup to keep troubling alliances between the local politicians, police, mafia, bandits, and Giuliano’s activities a secret.

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.”)

Although the film is titled with the bandit’s name and he is indeed the key figure around which the plot hinges, Giuliano (Pietro Cammarata) rarely appears onscreen alive, and when he does it’s merely as a fleeting figure with his back to the camera or seen in long shot. Rosi doesn’t invent any drama through, say, an imaginary campfire soliloquy, or endow Giuliano with any sentimental ideologies; the outlaw remains a discernable yet mysterious figure throughout, just as he is to historians.

Rosi borrows several elements from neorealism–nonprofessional actors and real locations, deep focus photography and long takes–but he adopts an austere structure with a complex timeframe that provocatively avoids narrative embellishment and the usual emotional padding one might expect from a “historical film,” as if to say “this is all we know–take it or leave it.” (Neorealism, he would suggest, concerned itself with depicting reality; he wanted to go one step further and critique reality.)

Despite this 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 Giuliano succeeded in revealing many details previously hidden to the public and continues to prompt reflection. (The Criterion DVD helpfully includes a newsreel from the era that illustrates the extent to which the official version of events differed from, or obscured, many of the facts.) 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.

The film also presents a troubling historical moment that foreshadows many future events. The guerilla tactics of Giuliano’s men aren’t so far removed from future battles fought in Algeria or Vietnam, and the propensity of established powers to surreptitiously recruit revolutionaries and thugs for their causes, only to watch the violence escalate beyond their control is a tragedy that has become all too pertinent in recent times.