Francesco Rosi will celebrate his 91st birthday on November 15. His birth, in Naples, came only a few weeks after Mussolini’s train ride in 1922, famously heralded as his “March on Rome.” More curiously, Rosi’s birth preceded by a single day that of the Sicilian bandit-turned-separatist-leader Salvatore Giuliano, who was shot dead in 1950. I’m not sure that Rosi even knew this, but it strikes me as an amazing coincidence. Much of Giuliano’s life and death is shrouded in mystery, and Rosi’s eponymous biopic, whatever its virtues, sheds little light of intimacy on its protagonist. Giuliano is rarely on screen and barely says a few words, although care is taken that his corpse resembles the original. Yet the director constructs the film in such a way that Giuliano’s presence remains dominant.
Young Rosi, after a brief stint in Il Duce’s army, worked in radio, theater, and film before finally getting a chance at directing in his mid-thirties. Salvatore Giuliano was his third and most famous picture. He had assisted Luchino Visconti on La Terra Trema, one of the great classics of Neorealism, and Rosi retained a strong sense of the authenticity of actuality that went with the territory. Much of his work depended on nonprofessional actors, and he was also influenced by the great Bolshevik spectacles of the 1920s and 1930s. The scene in Giuliano of the aftermath of the May Day massacre, for example, reminds one of the scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky in which the camera prowls a battlefield littered with bodies. Much of the stark beauty of Giuliano, photographed with great precision in glorious black and white, can be attributed to the superb cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo, who had also worked for Visconti and later shot several of the major films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini—in addition to a number of other Rosi pictures—before his untimely death at 45.
Salvatore Giuliano is structured in flashbacks, beginning, like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, with the death of its central figure. Like Rosi’s The Mattei Affair (and Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, which we are showing on Sunday in our Auteurist History Reprise series), the movie takes the form of an elliptical postmortem investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of its protagonist. Since Giuliano is hardly ever given the opportunity to develop much audience understanding or sympathy, it is left to those on his periphery—the Sicilian separatists, the peasantry who viewed him as a latter-day Robin Hood, and his hysterically grieving mother—to convince us that he matters. I have never found courtroom dramas very cinematic, not even Alfred Hitchcock’s (The Paradine Case, Stage Fright), and the second half of Rosi’s film seems to get bogged down, making one pine for Di Venanza’s barren hills of Sicily. Michael Cimino’s 1987 The Sicilian (based on Mario Puzo’s novel and starring Christopher Lambert, and deemed “militantly lugubrious” by Leonard Maltin) covered much of the same territory.
Early in his career, Rosi tended to be political and socially conscious, although his depiction of Sicily, however accurate, is almost medieval. The director makes the point that the mainlanders (military and paparazzi) are condescending to the southerners, but he may not be entirely free of that fault. Rosi’s proletarian instincts are tempered by a fascination with crime figures and the Mafia. (In 1973 he made Lucky Luciano with Gian-Maria Volonte, who played Clint Eastwood’s rival in Sergio Leone’s seminal “spaghetti Western” A Fistful of Dollars, itself a remake of Akira Kuosawa’s Yojimbo, which we are showing next week. A young, as-yet-undeported, Luciano is a recurring character in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, portrayed by Vincent Piazza—sometimes sans clothing.) As Ann Harris has pointed out, Rosi’s main departure from his Neorealist roots is his lack of emphasis on character development, which sets his work apart from films like Roberto Rossellini’s Open City or Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. His primary focus is on the primitive Sicilian society and its primitive landscape. Rosi himself offers, “I believe that through an engaged cinema…that attempts as much as possible to rub shoulders with the truth…one can succeed in conveying the urgency of respecting human dignity.”
I was saddened by the death of Julie Harris on August 24. I had occasion to meet her when MoMA did an all-too-brief retrospective of her film work several years ago and, as Ben Brantley put it in The New York Times, she was every bit as “luminous” in reality as she was on stage or screen. We’re showing Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, which pairs Harris with James Dean, on Saturday. Kazan was one of the premier connoisseurs of acting talent of the 20th century, and in his autobiography he wrote, “I doubt that Jimmy would ever have got through East of Eden except for an angel on our set. Her name was Julie Harris, and she was goodness itself with Dean…. As a performer she found in each moment what was dearest and most moving…. The breakup of a film company when the schedule concludes is often a sad event; none was sadder for me than when I saw this young woman for the last time.”