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SALVATORE GIULIANO(director/writer: Francesco Rosi; screenwriters: Suso Cecchi d’Amico/Enzo Provenzale/Franco Solinas; cinematographer: Gianni Di Venanzo; editor: Mario Serandrei; music: Piero Piccioni; cast: Frank Wolff (Gaspare Pisciotta), Salvo Randone (President of Viterbo Assize Court), Federico Zardi (Pisciotta’s Defense Counsel), Pietro Cammarata (Salvatore Giuliano), Fernando Cicero (Bandit); Runtime: 125; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Franco Cristaldi; The Criterion Collection; 1962-Italy-in Italian with English subtitles)
“This was the groundbreaking political film of director Francesco Rosi.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This was the groundbreaking political film of director Francesco Rosi (“Christ Stopped at Eboli”/”Lucky Luciano”/”Three Brothers”), his first reconstructed documentary, gaining him international acclaim for his gritty, inspired film’s stark realism and still may be his best work. It’s a brilliantly intricate work that may be too obscure for those not familiar with Sicilian politics and its social structure. In any case, the film had an impact on real life as it was instrumental in getting the government in Palermo to set up an inquiry into Mafia activities. Michael Cimino made another version in 1987 called The Sicilian.

It’s based on the true story of Salvatore Giuliano, a 27-year-old Sicilian bandit who had risen to become a Mafia boss. Giuliano’s body was found in a sunny courtyard in Castelvetrano shot full of holes on July 5, 1950, as he was supposedly shot by the police. Later it’s learned he was shot by his best friend Gaspare Pisciotta (Frank Wolff) and the police fired on the dead body and took credit for the kill. Filmed in semi-documentary style in the heart of Sicily’s Mafia country, it tells its story mostly in flashback. It tries in its expos√© to uncover the real story behind this important terrorist/bandit historical figure, as it tells of his entanglements with politics, with the local citizens, with government officials, with the Mafia and with the carbinieri. The filmmaker was influenced by both Italian neorealism and the American gangster film. His definitive original filming style is to tell nothing he believes is not verified as true. Rosi doesn’t keep to a chronological time line, as the film veers back and forth in time.

The black and white film, beautifully photographed by Gianni Di Venanzo, features an all nonprofessional cast except for Frank Wolff (in a hammy performance that detracts from the film, as he brings a different mood) as the bandit best friend of Salvatore Giuliano and Salvo Randone as the President of Viterbo Assize Court. Rosi asked the local Sicilians to act in the film and to relive their experience over again from ten to fifteen years ago when the bandit was a wanted man operating in the nearby mountains (and they were all fine, with the photography of the area adding to the film’s feel of authenticity).

The mobster’s career picks up in 1945, after the war, when Salvatore Giuliano (Pietro Cammarata) is recruited by the separatist movement to fight for Sicily’s independence. Giuliano’s partisans, called the pisciotti, attack the army sent there to put down the rebellion. Reacting against the guerrilla fighters, the army in an unpopular move roundup many of the young males in the village of Montelepre. What follows is that partial independence is ceded to Sicily and the gutless politicians abandon their Mafia and bandit helpers, in fact start to hunt them down. Giuliano’s gang splits up, with some returning to the villages seeking amnesty and the remainder staying with Giuliano in the hills. In one infamous incident Giuliano’s terrorists take unkindly to a May Day celebration and the gang massacres a group of peasant communists on May 1, 1947, at Portella della Ginestra. The second part of the film, the weaker half, covers the events in the present at Viterbo, where the pisciotti and their leader Gaspare Pisciotta are put on trial for that massacre. Pisciotta is the right-hand man of Giuliano, who betrayed him and who after killing his pal is convicted and given a life sentence. In prison Pisciotta is poisoned by members of the Mafia, a group he joined after leaving Giuliano. The film ends with the assassination by unseen shooters in 1960 of a Mafia soldier implicated in the deaths of Giuliano and Pisciotta.

Rosi tries to tie in the collusions between the Mafia, the legal system, political parties, the army, the police and the bandits. Everything isn’t as clear as it should be even if the film itself is clear (it’s a film more meant for a local than an international audience), as we’re left mulling over all the duplicities involved in this bandit’s death and how his enigmatic life (purposely never cleared up, since the director feels there are still too many mysteries about him) can’t help raise questions about the integrity of the Sicilian government. It’s a film aiming to make the viewer more politically aware that not everything appears to be what it seems, and grandly succeeds in accomplishing that aim.

REVIEWED ON 10/22/2008 GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”