Francesco Rossi: Salvatore Giulano

By Dai Vaughan

salvatore-giulano-francesco-rossi.jpgSalvatore Giuliano, 1961

Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano was made in 1960/1961, a bare ten years after the death of the Sicilian bandit into whose career it inquired. That may seem an odd way of phrasing it: but in fact the film is far more an inquiry than an account. Inevitably, however, an account is what we assume it to be when we first sit down to watch it; and the way we are required to come to terms with its actual nature marks, as much as does the succession of narrated events, the film's trajectory.

The historical Giuliano, forced into banditry by poverty during the fascist era, was represented by the world's media during his lifetime as an almost incomprehensible amalgam of criminal and idealist. He and his band were recruited by the Sicilian separatists after the fall of Mussolini only to be dropped from favour when partial autonomy had been granted. By the end of his career, he had become the focus for rivalries and antagonisms between local and central government, the Carabinieri, the army, the Mafia and who knows what other shady forces.

It is difficult to imagine how Rosi, supposedly under the pretext of making a travelogue, managed to shoot sequences of military manoeuvres, popular demonstrations and mass arrests in which the populations of whole villages seem to have taken part. One's first reaction to the film is to marvel at its sheer scope and flair. Only as it develops, and we find ourselves wrong-footed again and again by its narrative construction do we recognise that what is being choreographed with such skill is not only the on-screen action but the very language of editing. This is, after all, a film about deceptions: and the conventions of archival newsreel, of fiction and of a vérité reportage scarcely yet born, are harnessed in a way that close analysis shows to be scrupulously consistent to the task of making us question the provenance and value of every statement made in it.

I can think of no other film that combines direct appeal to the emotions with intellectual subtlety and rigour in quite the way that Salvatore Giuliano does. It deserves to be far more readily available.

Dai Vaughan is a documentarist and writer.