There is a common refrain among academics and law enforcement officials who have studied the Italian Mafia, arguably the best known and in many ways the seed group for all other crime syndicates.
To understand the Mafia, they say, you first have to understand Sicily.
Francisco Rosi’s riveting account of the life, times and death of Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano is a good place to start.
In his excellent commentary included in the movie’s DVD package, British film critic Peter Cowie calls the quasi-documentary a “new kind of investigative cinema” and “the first film to strip away the mystique that surrounded the Mafia.”
He also offers high praise for Rosi, who shot the entire film in Sicily and used locals to fill all but a few key roles. Cowie called Rosi “an altogether new voice . . . a director stabbing his finger in your face and saying this is the way the world really is today.”
Movies like the Brazilian gangster saga City of God (also on our list) and Costa-Gavras’ famous Z (1969) built and expanded on the storytelling style developed here by Rosi.
Not unlike Sicily itself, Salvatore Giuliano is both fascinating and troubling. It is a story built around lies, betrayals and shifting alliances.
Salvatore Giuliano was a poor peasant who became a bandit during World War II in Sicily. Operating primarily in the hills outside of Palermo, he built a highly effective organization and, at least in some circles, was considered a Robin Hood. But was he a member of the Mafia, or merely used by the secret society? Was he part of their criminal underworld, or had he created his own?
Rosi doesn’t pretend to know the answers, but does dramatically pose the questions.
The movie opens with Giuliano’s blood-soaked body lying in a courtyard in Montelepre, where he was born. Over the years, the town provided him with protection as he avoided arrest and established his reputation.
His shooting death in 1950 was international news. He had been profiled in Time and remained a strong advocate for an independent Sicilian state. But his role in post-war Sicily and his murder have always been the subjects of intense speculation and wild contradictions.
Rosi uses his film to raise significant questions not only about his central character, but also about the institutions—the Italian government, its political parties and the Mafia—that have controlled the island.
For Giuliano’s supporters, those institutions are no different than the Greeks, the French, the Spanish and the Moors who over the centuries governed Sicily and oppressed its people.
American actor Frank Wolff is compelling in his role as Gaspare Pisciotta, a key lieutenant in Giuliano’s organization who ultimately betrays him. Salvo Randone plays the Italian magistrate charged with overseeing the trial of Giuliano associates accused of the May Day massacre at Portella della Ginestra that did much to taint the image of the bandit leader.
The motivation for the attack, which left at least 11 people dead and more than 30 wounded, is never clear. Was Giuliano manipulated by politicians who feared the rise of Communism in Sicily following World War II? Was he framed by the Mafia, which at first embraced the bandit kingpin, but later found that the intense law enforcement efforts to track him down were impeding its own ability to operate? Or was he simply the kidnapper-extortionist that law enforcement authorities claimed he was, and who saw this as another in a string of violent acts orchestrated by Giuliano to expand his status and influence?
Throughout the film, we never get a close-up shot of the actor playing the bandit king. Nor do we hear him speak. He is seen only from a distance, usually wearing an off-white trench coat and leading a band of gun-toting associates into the hills or on a raid.
His narrative relayed in flashbacks, Rosi skillfully uses cutaways from the Portella della Ginestra trial to introduce the political intrigue and Mafia treachery that may have been behind much of what Giuliano did.
Pisciotta is a key witness who, along with other members of Giuliano’s band, offers insights into the outlaw and hints at a memoir—still undiscovered—in which Giuliano himself allegedly detailed the deals, promises and betrayals that began when he was recruited by politicians to head a separatist Sicilian army in 1945.
Historically, many of these issues were raised by reporters who covered the killing of Giuliano— which authorities originally claimed was the result of a shootout with Carabinieri, the Italian national police tracking him.
One reporter in the film calls in his story with a classic line that has defined the case.
“The only thing we know for certain is that he’s dead,” the reporter says during a telephone call to his editing desk.
Rosi cleverly uses that same reporter to make one of the fundamental points of the film.
Sweating in the Sicilian sun and moving around the neighborhood questioning locals about the “shootout” hours after Giuliano’s body has been removed, the reporter stops at a lemonade stand for a drink and asks the proprietor what he thought of Giuliano.
We only see the back of the lemonade stand operator’s head as he speaks.
Giuliano, he says, “took from the rich and gave to the poor.”
“That’s it?” asks the reporter.
Yes, says the lemonade stand operator, who then asks the reporter where he is from.
“Rome,” says the reporter.
At that, the man behind the lemonade stand shakes his head and says, almost disdainfully, “What do you know about Sicily?”
HIT: Great pacing in this black-and-white film and its documentary style create a sense of being there, whether it’s in one of the hillside hideouts or on the winding streets of a Sicilian village. Another great touch—and one borrowed by The Godfather: Part II—is a town crier beating a drum as he walks through the streets of Montelepre announcing curfews, rationing and other restrictions imposed on the town as authorities try to ferret out Giuliano.
MISS: There’s not much to dislike here if you buy into the documentary style. But the film lacks a central figure and consistent narrative. This is not your typical gangster movie and, if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be disappointed.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Though the pic has many moments of suspense and excitement as it tells the Giuliano story and all that went with it, it is by no means the usual bandit-gendarme yarn. In fact, one rarely if ever catches a close-up of the notorious outlaw who made national and international headlines in the post-war years.”—Variety
REALITY CHECK: The Portella della Ginestra massacre scene opens with a rousing speech from one of the local Communist leaders to the villagers gathered for the annual May Day celebration. In fact, the shooting began before any speeches did, and the attack was believed to have been designed to break up the rally before it got going.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: History buffs and anyone with an interest in the contradictions that are Sicily will find this movie worth a second, or even a third, viewing.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Giuliano had little faith in Italian politicians, whether from the mainland or Sicily. He once wrote a letter to President Harry Truman asking him to annex the island as an American state.
CASTING CALL: Frank Wolff struggled to make it in America, but found success in Italy after his portrayal of the conflicted Gaspare Pisciotta. He had appeared in several Roger Corman films, but made his mark in Europe. He played key roles in several spaghetti westerns and is perhaps best known to American audiences for his role as farmer Brett McBain in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the Sergio Leone classic.
BEST LINE: In one of the many voice-overs used to propel the story forward, the movie’s narrator describes the villages in the hills outside Palermo as, “Giuliano’s kingdom, protected by omerta, passion and terror.”
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Battle of Algiers (1966), director Gillo Pontecorvo’s excellent account of the French-Algerian civil war, or Gomorrah (2008), a movie based on a book by the same name that details organized crime’s violent and disheartening control of present day Naples.
If you want to go in another direction, one of Mario’s Puzo’s last books, The Sicilian, was based on the life of Salvatore Giuliano. Christopher Lambert starred in the 1987 Michael Cimino movie based on the book. It’s a more traditional and somewhat melodramatic film, and lacks the edge of Rosi’s classic.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Massacres and shootouts throughout the film, although none of the high-tech, up-close violence that is prevalent in more recent gangster movies.
BODY COUNT: Fifty and counting. It’s impossible to get an accurate total because of the battle scenes.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]