Cinema in quarantine: The bandit Giuliano

Claudio Cretti (Journal of Reviews)


Commentary on the classic film of political cinema directed by Francesco Rosi.

the bandit Giuliano it is not a cinematic biography of Salvatore Giuliano. The corpse is the maximum proximity, and intimacy, that can be achieved from the famous and brief outlaw. Giuliano is worth more dead than alive. No wonder, the film begins with the present body.

In the opening sequence, a preamble, the high camera frames Giuliano's body lying on the floor and several men around him, as if framing him. It's police officers and forensics combing the crime scene. Giuliano's prone position on the ground, and his weapons lying beside him, form a sort of emblem of the warrior. There seems to have been a confrontation that led to the death of that Sicilian variant of Robin Hood, an image hinted at by the refreshment seller to a journalist. There lies a hero of the people, who, it seems, fell resisting the oppressive forces.

Francesco Rosi, however, is not a filmmaker given to heroism or personalities. For this reason, instead of jumping to the bandit's origins, from his childhood or the reasons that led him to transgress the law, the narrative goes back five years before his death, at the end of the second war, in 1945. The narrator, in documentary key, explains the circumstances of the struggle for independence in Sicily.

The camera shows, in a panoramic view from above, the masses carrying independence flags and fighting in the streets of Palermo. The camera movement comes from right to left and, at the exact moment that the voice over mentions the interests (“Americans, English, landlords and the mafia”) behind Sicilian separatism, several gentlemen at a counter are framed in an overall plan. Those are the separatist leaders, diffuse representatives of the aforementioned interests, who observe from above, distinguishing themselves from the popular bases that are in the pitched battles. Then, returning to the interior of a hall, they discuss how to react to the incursions of the central government and, in the same instant, they plan the recruitment of bandits (the little ones) to compose the armed wing of the cause.

The next sequence begins with a wide shot of the mountains of Montelepre. This is how Salvatore Giuliano is thrust into history. Like an artillery piece in the hands of that collusion of separatist interests. But if Giuliano opened the film in the plastic concreteness of his corpse, now in life he barely appears on stage. He will only be an elusive figure, walking in the shadows or invoked by name or nickname (“Turiddu”).

His rare appearances, invariably wearing his white overcoat, will occur in the distance, quickly, as when he accompanies the clash against the soldiers trying to arrest him in the mountains. He doesn't act effectively. There is no individualization of gestures and decisions. What you see are simulacra of actions, of attacks, whose function is not exactly dramatic, but indicative (except for a fundamental sequence, which will be seen later on).

The group's decision-making or political arrangements take place offstage. Giuliano has almost no voice, speech is tiny. Nothing is heard, nothing is seen of their attitudes or reactions. Commands and information come from third parties, from some subordinate who heard from who knows what source. The subject is indeterminate. The narrative is elliptical, discontinuous. There are events, but there is no basting; the sense is weak, presumptuous. Deep down, Giuliano's followers act in the dark, without conscience. Certainly not even he has it, but that doesn't matter to the director.

The fact is that the warp of the narrative is not in the mountains; it is staged in town and city offices. It was from the salon in Palermo, first, that the trip to Montelepre was triggered. It is in the scenes of offices or basements, where police, mobsters and politicians gather, that the commands and maneuvers that have repercussions on the bandits and all the other residents are defined. There is, therefore, an order of things, whose axis is far beyond regional power, which escapes comprehension and which puts and disposes of that poor population that lives in the arid Sicilian lands.

And just as it built Giuliano, that order discarded it. Absently, without any pomp. If Giuliano's debut in history took place off-screen, now the same thing happens with his exit. The end of it, contrary to what the opening sequence had promised, was not the result of some far-fetched escape and a confrontation with the police forces. As per the good recipe of the detective genre, there was something behind it. In fact, the execution of the bandit resulted from an act of treason formulated between police authorities and mafia leaders. The spurious hit, made on stage, is more important than the murder, from which only the shots fired by Giuliano's right arm, who was sleeping helplessly, can be heard. Execution is irrelevant. There's no reason to inspire any sympathy for him. Even his death was a hoax.

A farce that served the dominant forces so well, that in the end they handed the Justice a scapegoat and the people a myth. The scapegoat, resolved by the key of the police genre, was confirmed as an artifact in the hands of an intricate consortium of criminals, police and politicians. As for the myth, Francesco Rosi makes the relentless reckoning dramatic. As if it were not enough to have stripped Salvatore Giuliano of any active capacity or individualization, the film performs a kind of desecration of his corpse.

There is a certain point, practically in the middle of the film, in which the succession of two sequences, chronologically inverted, ends up making explicit a contrast with a striking effect. They are the only two situations loaded with intense drama.

The first sequence is where the mother and sister are at the cemetery for Giuliano's recognition. As soon as the door to the wake room opens, from the mother's angle of vision, the frame has in the center the body on a marble slab, shirtless and barefoot, and in each of the two lateral ends, in the background, is placed in foot a funeral helper. The wall is rustic, without plaster. From the perspective of those who enter, the environment seems to emulate a tomb guarded by guardians.

The mother is all in black, including the veil covering her head. She carries some branches, which she places over her son's body as she whispers a prayer and begins to kiss him, as if she were kissing his wounds. After recognizing her son to the policeman, the mother evokes her nickname (Turiddu) in a sharp and haunting lament. The camera captures from above, in deep, the body in the foreground and the lady on the upper side, bent over and kissing her left arm. The lament is superimposed on a growing and serious orchestral percussion, which gives the scene the character of a funeral procession. The last gesture, accompanied by the higher tone of the track, occurs when the mother is slowly removed from the painting, leaving only the “sculpted” body on the marble slab. It is as if the pain evolved into an epiphanic sculpture – the very Pieta. Giuliano is made a monument.

The later sequence breaks the solemn atmosphere with a given objective. Go back three years earlier, to 1947, and the voice over discusses the triumph of the Popular Bloc (a coalition of leftist parties, including socialists and communists) in the elections for the Sicilian regional parliament. In the painting, a shepherd guiding his flock is questioned by Giuliano's emissaries. They are enlisting him, it will later become known, for a major attack against the Communists, in exchange for a supposed amnesty. On the morning of May 1st, the band of bandits can be seen marching with Giuliano at the head.

In the Portella della Ginestra valley, a crowd of peasants and left-wing militants begins to gather for the usual commemoration of the date and the victory of the Popular Bloc. Several flags fly, among them the hammer and sickle of the Italian Communist Party. It is the moment of verbal politicization throughout the film, with speeches reminding that, “with or without fascism”, workers have always occupied that place; emphasis is also placed on the guidelines for agrarian, educational, health democratization, etc. Meanwhile, the camera pans from the speaker, showing the people around until it goes up and frames the immense mountain, from where the crackle of machine guns can be heard.

You can't see the shooters; the executioner's cowardice is obscene. In the visual field, the uproar spreads and the chaotic rush is unleashed, as in an einsensteinian echo. Desperate fathers and mothers collect their slaughtered children. In an iconic foreground, a lady all in black, lying down, cries and kisses the ground; two others curl up as if to protect themselves. The serious soundtrack, like the sequence in the cemetery, continues in a crescendo, but here the appeal is terrifying. The savagery of the carnage is imprinted in an open-plan panoramic view, with the countless bodies strewn among rocks and bushes, the survivors dragging themselves and the widespread screaming.

The contrast between the two sequences, that of the cemetery and that of Portella, establishes an inescapable dialectic. In the first, the mother mourns the body of her dead son, which the images elevate to the condition of sanctity. In the second, the opposite happens; the mothers, also in black, mourn the deaths of their children caused by a venal and bloodthirsty Giuliano. The parallel is reinforced with the identification established between the soundtracks. The bandit's tomb comes crashing down. Rosi lays bare Giuliano and consigns him to his rightful place – alongside the enemies of the working class.

The film solution is luminous. Instead of dismantling the myth directly, and ostensibly, by enunciating Giuliano's crimes and alliances, Rosi does so only by visual contrast, investing all his dramatic vigor in these two sequences and exposing them to confrontation. It is the collision of two times, in which the past is asked to shake the present of the winners. Any verbal resource is unnecessary, as there is cinema.

And it is through cinema, with a meticulous cutting of elements, that Francesco Rosi makes Salvatore Giuliano a pretext to leave in the open one of the most brutal political crimes in Italy – the massacre of Portella della Ginestra. By bringing that episode to the forefront, the bandit Giuliano not only does it restore the memory of the oppressed, but it also exposes, in an unprecedented way, a whole political-criminal and economic gear of class subjugation that, as is known, has conquered the world.

Rosi inherited and updated neorealism on a robust political level, which meant putting her camera at the service of a class project. He is the filmmaker of a time when many artists were not exempt from assuming an open historical commitment.

*Roberto Noritomi he holds a PhD in sociology of culture from USP.


the bandit Giuliano (Salvatore Giuliano)

Italy, 1962, 123 minutes.

Directed by: Francesco Rosi

Cast: Frank Wolff, Except for Randone, Frederick Zardi


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