With Salvatore Giuliano (1961), Francesco Rosi developed the style and method that would make him, during the sixties and seventies, the greatest political filmmaker of his time. If Sergei Eisenstein could be considered the master of political cinema in the first half of the twentieth century, Rosi, in a way his peer, offers a totally different approach to the realities of power. Joseph Goebbels, allegedly an admirer of the Russian director’s films, would have been unable to endorse Rosi’s analytical conclusions. Eisenstein uses the tools of propaganda, playing chiefly on emotion and a Manichean view of the world. Rosi, though able to provoke deeply sensitive reactions from his spectators, always manages to make them think by tracking down and exposing the lies that obscure the inquiries and the scandals of our societies. His filmography can be viewed as a vast panorama of the historical past of his country, as well as its present.
Influenced by both Italian neorealism and the American crime-film tradition (from Jules Dassin to Elia Kazan), Rosi had worked as an assistant director with such filmmakers as Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Mario Monicelli before striking out on his own as writer and director with two films, La sfida (The Challenge, 1958) and I magliari (1959), the first situated in Naples and the second among Italian immigrant cloth sellers in Hamburg. Having mastered his craft, Rosi inaugurated with Salvatore Giuliano a new kind of realism that, while strongly influenced by neorealism, went beyond its immediate model by examining such issues as power and the relationships between the law and lawbreakers, while also shedding light on the causes and consequences that determine the ways in which society functions.
Salvatore Giuliano is set in the mezzogiorno, that southern part of Italy (including Sicily) that has been left on its own to struggle with poverty and exploitation. It is this region that dominates most of the director’s work, from Le mani sulla città (Hands Over the City, 1963) to Il caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair, 1972) and Cadaveri eccellenti (Illustrious Corpses, 1976). Salvatore Giuliano was initially entitled Sicilia 1943-–1960, a title that reveals the director’s intention to create a portrait of the island, complete with its contradictions and its historical evolution. Salvatore Giuliano, the Sicilian bandit whose name was to become the final title of the film, is present only as a corpse in a courtyard in Castelvetrano, or on a slab in a morgue, or even as a figure in a white shirt running up and down the rocky slopes of the Sicilian mountains. By using the name of a more or less absent man as the title of his work, Rosi found an immediate way to stress his rejection of character identification and, even more strongly, of the hero worship that generally characterizes the storylines of the biopic.
Rosi scales back dramatization and achieves the effect of alienation through his unorthodox treatment of the storyline. Shaking up the chronological order, the director juxtaposes disparate narrative blocks, thus creating a back-and-forth movement in time that sheds light on the causes and effects. In the first part of the film, Giuliano’s death (the discovery of his body at Castelvetrano in July 1950; the police report; the anguish on his mother’s face as she identifies the body on the altar at the morgue) serves as the film’s present tense. But the surrounding scenes (Palermo in 1945 and the Sicilian separatist movement; Giuliano’s partisans, the pisciotti, attacking the armed forces; the roundups organized by the military among the inhabitants in the village of Montelepre; the massacre of the communists on May 1, 1947, at Portella della Ginestra) are not treated as flashbacks (as in Citizen Kane, for instance) but rather as fragments of a mosaic that bit by bit reveal their meaning. In the second part of the film, the events at Viterbo—where the pisciotti and their leader, Gaspare Pisciotta, Giuliano’s right-hand man, were put on trial—become the film’s present while allowing the director to clarify other preceding events, such as the betrayal of Giuliano by Pisciotta or the removal of the bandit’s body by the carabinieri. The final sequence is a flash forward that takes us to 1960 and the assassination of a Mafioso implicated in Giuliano’s death. Rosi concludes the film with a scene reminiscent of the film’s opening—another man left for dead by an unseen shooter.
The political and philosophical decisions involved in this type of structure also evolved from an ethical decision by Francesco Rosi, who refused to invent or imagine events of which he had no knowledge. His method, which included exhaustive research into documents (trial minutes, photographs, testimony, newspaper articles) followed by on-site verification, led him to include his doubts, his questions, and even the inevitable gaps in his investigation in the narrative structure. Although shot at least ten years after the events in question (a necessary separation in time can also be found in Rosi’s other docudramas, Il caso Mattei and 1974’s Lucky Luciano), Salvatore Giuliano still ran up against the law of silence in the collusions between the Mafia, the legal system, political parties, the army, the police, and the bandits. But it is precisely these uncertainties that give the film its complexity and its aura of mystery. Asking questions rather than providing answers, Salvatore Giuliano was able to reach far beyond the usual boundaries of political cinema, which all too often simply seeks to reassure its audiences.
The impact of Salvatore Giuliano and the authenticity of its images have led some to see it as a documentary. But if Rosi made a documented film, what he shows us is the result of a patient and inspired reconstruction. There has never been a film that aimed more strongly at destroying romantic illusions, at deflating the very spirit of the epic, while at the same time offering more beauty, more potential to inspire a kind of epic passion in the viewer that at any moment can carry political awareness into a new dimension. A Neapolitan by birth, Rosi brings together the two cultural tendencies of his native city: rationalism inherited from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and an emotional drive that turn towards death and tragedy. His filmmaking brings about a fusion of the realism of the Rossellini of such films as Paisà (1946) and the formal splendor of the Visconti of La terra trema (1948). From this we can conclude the following: Truth is beauty; Beauty is truth.
In Salvatore Giuliano, Rosi used only two professional actors, Frank Wolff (Gaspare Pisciotta) and Salvo Randone (President of the Court of Assize). The remainder of the cast was gathered from the Sicilian population. By asking the Sicilian natives to relive traumatic moments of their own history, the director was thus able to create psychodramas of overwhelming emotional impact: Giuliano’s mother wailing over his body; the procession, complete with horses and flags, across the valley of Portella della Ginestra as gunshots ring out from the surrounding hills; the roundup in Montelepre, with mothers and wives demanding that the army give them back their men; the pisciotti, imprisoned behind bars in the courthouse, standing with pride against the bourgeois system of justice.
By analyzing a specific situation in minute detail, Rosi, through the depth of his approach, was able to give his film a universal quality. In Salvatore Giuliano one can in fact witness the opposition between the north and the south, the disinherited—those left behind in the economic development—pitted against the impersonal power of Rome as manifested in the legal system, the army, and the police. One also sees how the outcasts of the earth are manipulated and deceived by the local powers-that-be, whether Mafia or landowners. No wonder then that from the moment they appeared in the early sixties, Salvatore Giuliano and Rosi’s next film, Hands Over the City, became immediate references for fellow filmmakers such as Elio Petri and Gillo Pontecorvo, whose The Battle of Algiers was co-written by Franco Solinas, one of Rosi’s screenwriters for Salvatore Giuliano. The latter film was also a strong influence on Brazilian Cinema Novo directors such as Glauber Rocha (Black God, White Devil [Deus eo diablo na terra do sol, 1964]) and Ruy Guerra (The Guns, [Os Fuzis, 1964]), as well as on the Hungarian Miklos Jancso (The Round Up, [Szegénylegények, 1965]) or the Greek Theo Angelopoulos (The Reconstruction, [Anaparastasis, 1970]).
Salvatore Giuliano can be seen as the cast from which Rosi struck all of his subsequent films, all of them reflections on power and death, all of them chapters in the history of twentieth-century Italy, all of them acts of courage and fountains of beauty, the work of a man, a poet, and a citizen.
Michael Ciment is a member of the editorial board of the French film monthly Positif and the author of some fifteen books on cinema, including Kubrick, Kazan on Kazan, Conversations with Losey, and Le Dossier Rosi. He is also a critic and radio producer and the president of F.I.P.R.E.S.C.I. (the International Federation of Film Critics).
Translated by Royal S. Brown