Friday, July 11, 2014

The Sicilian

Based on the novel by Mario Puzo, The Sicilian is the story of a notorious bandit named Salvatore Giuliano who tried to liberate Sicily from Italy in the late 1940s as he would also defy the Mafia and other forces who would have him killed. Directed by Michael Cimino and screenplay by Steve Shagan with contributions from Gore Vidal, the film is an unconventional bio-pic that plays into the rise and fall of Giuliano as he is played by Christopher Lambert. Also starring John Turturro, Joss Ackland, Barbara Sukowa, Richard Bauer, Ray McNally, and Terence Stamp. The Sicilian is a rich yet gripping film from Michael Cimino.

The film is about the life of Salvatore Giuliano who was considered to be modern-day Robin Hood for the people of Sicily in the 1950s who defied the rich, the Mafia, and others in power. In the course of his journey from being this simple bandit to being the ultimate enemy for Italy, there is this story of a man who had survived death and tragedies but would eventually become his worst enemy as he thinks he is a savior to the people of Sicily. Instead, he ends up angering those with power including a Mafia leader in Don Masino (Joss Ackland), who wants to become an ally, as it would lead to his death in 1950. Yet, Giuliano’s death wouldn’t just happen because of himself but also in how the world works where Giuliano thinks that the people of Sicily wants land but things become more complicated as the people eventually lose faith in him.

The film’s screenplay that is largely re-written by Gore Vidal plays into that world of a man falling for his own myth yet it begins and ends with Giuliano’s mentor in Professor Hector Adonis (Richard Bauer) who would meet the man that killed Giuliano. The first act is about Giuliano’s rise and how he believes he is immortal as he is joined by his cousin Gaspare “Aspanu” Pisciotta (John Turturro) in stealing bread for the poor. Giuliano’s action in being a bandit forces him to realize he has to do more for the people in Sicily as he would take on the Mafia, the rich, and the corrupt world of politics and religion. Giuliano’s actions would get Don Masino’s attention as he wants to meet him through Adonis but Guiliano would often refuse in an act of defiance. The film’s second act is about Giuliano becoming this mythic figure as he would gain some allies as well as detractors in Italian minister Trezza (Ray McNally) as well as the intrigue of Sicily’s Prince Borsa (Terence Stamp) whose wife Camilla, Duchess of Cortone (Barbara Sukowa) would be seduced by Giuliano.

One aspect of the script that is unique is Vidal’s dialogue which is very stylized and direct where it does play into some of the film’s campy tone in some respects though it’s not overly camp. One aspect of the script that doesn’t work involves some of the character development where much of the women characters like Camilla and Giuliano’s girlfriend Giovanna (Giulia Boschi) are underwritten while some of Giuliano’s motivations definitely become one-note as his development isn’t as smooth or as intricately-written as it could’ve been. Fortunately, characters like Adonis, Pisciotta, and Don Masino manage to be fleshed out more as Don Masino is an unconventional antagonist since he admires Giuliano’s determination while wanting to ensure that he doesn’t get harmed where there is this very strange father-son relationship between the two. Yet, it’s a relationship that Giuliano doesn’t want and it would eventually regret it once it becomes clear that Giuliano doesn’t have the power he once had as politicians and religious organizers come together to stop him.

Michael Cimino’s direction is very sprawling in the way he presents the film as an epic of sorts set in Sicily. Shooting on location in the island, much of Cimino’s approach is to go for something that plays to not just his love for epics with his use of the wide shots and shooting on vast locations with a lot of coverage. Some of it is a homage to some of the Italian epics in terms of the compositions and settings that Cimino wanted to create. There’s also some unique close-ups and medium shots that Cimino would use to play into the drama and suspense as some of the violence is quite brutal including some very terrifying execution scenes where Giuliano kills those who betray him. There is a fluidity to not just the tracking shots and hand-held camera shots that Cimino creates throughout the film but also in how it plays into some of these scenes where it is about the situations and the characters involved.

The element of camp isn’t told in a comical manner but rather in a style that is a bit over-the-top in terms of the delivery of some of the film’s dialogue along with a few scenes where there’s some dancing. It’s one of the few aspects of the film that doesn’t work where Cimino wanted to inject something more light-hearted in a film that is often quite grim and operatic. Notably as the tone of the film gets much darker in the third act when Giuliano is tasked to stop Communist party members from voting where his intention was to scare them. Instead, something tragic happens where it plays into Giuliano’s fall as well as the reality of what he’s facing as it becomes clear over who is really in charge and how out of touch he has become with the people he wants to help. All of which would lead to the inevitable as its aftermath would only play into Giuliano’s legend. Overall, Cimino crafts a very engaging and mesmerizing film about a bandit’s rise and fall.

Cinematographer Alex Thomson does brilliant work with the film‘s cinematography from the gorgeous yet naturalistic look of the locations around the Sicilian mountains as well as some stylish usage of lights for some of the nighttime interior/exterior scenes including some of the shots in Palermo. Editor Francoise Bonnot does excellent work with the editing in creating some unique rhythmic cuts to play into its action and suspense as well as some of the drama. Production designer Wolf Kroeger and art director Stefano Maria Ortolani do amazing work with the set pieces from the lavish home of Prince Borsa to the many places in Palermo where many of the characters go to.

Costume designer Wayne A. Finkelman does terrific work with the costumes with most of the rugged look of Giuliano and his men to the more lavish dresses that Camilla wears. Sound editor Fred J. Brown does superb work with the sound from the gunfire sounds from afar as well as some of the chaos that goes on with crowds and also in some of gunfights that occur. The film’s music by David Mansfield is fantastic for its orchestral-driven score that is operatic at times but also somber with some themes that play into Giuliano and Giovanna’s relationship while the soundtrack includes a lot of music of the late 1940s.

The casting by Deborah Brown is great as the cast features some notable small performances from Ramon Bieri as the town mayor Quintana, Andreas Katsulas and Derrick Branche as a couple of Giuliano’s men who were former mob enforcers, Joe Regalbuto as a priest who warns Giuliano of what he is doing, Michael Wincott as an army corporal who joins Giuliano, Barry Miller as a professor who arrogantly defies Don Masino, Stanko Molnar as Giovanna’s Communist brother, Trevor Ray as a barber Giuliano knew as a boy, Justin Clark as a young boy who would become part of Giuliano’s band of brothers, and Ray McNally as a scheming minister who tries to stop Giuliano only to push buttons and eventually take some drastic matters into his own hands. Giulia Boschi is pretty good as Giuliano’s girlfriend Giovanna who tries to cope with his actions while having her own views about the way things work.

Barbara Sukowa is terrific as the Duchess Camilla who is wowed by Giuliano’s determination as she becomes a supporter of sorts for his cause. Richard Bauer is excellent as Giuliano’s mentor Professor Hector Adonis as someone who tries to guide Giuliano into taking a path while dealing with Don Masino as they both realize how crazed Giuliano has become. Terence Stamp is wonderful in a small yet noteworthy role as Prince Borsa as this rich figure in Sicily who often sees everything from afar while getting to know Giuliano where the two strike a deal of their own. Joss Ackland is brilliant as Don Masino as this revered and intimidating Mafia head who has a strange admiration for Giuliano as he tries to protect him from the rich and powerful in Italy only to realize how troubled he’s become. John Turturro is fantastic as Aspanu who is very loyal to his cousin Giuliano while doing all sorts of things only to realize how crazy it’s becoming.

Finally, there’s Christopher Lambert in a superb performance as Salvatore Giuliano as this bandit who wants to rebel against the rich and powerful in Italy to help the people of Sicily only to lose sight of his original intentions. Though it’s a performance that is flawed as Lambert would often be seen as stone-faced for much of the film, he does manage to convey some charisma and determination into the character.

The Sicilian is an excellent film from Michael Cimino. Thanks to a great cast and some amazing visuals, the film is one of Cimino’s finer films though it is quite flawed. Yet, it is a film that captures a world that is quite fascinating in a time period where old Italy is to meet a new world. Especially one that is much more violent and unforgiving as it is shown through Cimino’s eyes in its uncut 146-minute version. In the end, The Sicilian is a superb film from Michael Cimino.

Michael Cimino Films: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot - The Deer Hunter - Heaven’s Gate - Year of the Dragon - Desperate Hours (1990 film) - The Sunchaser - To Each His Own Cinema-No Translation Needed - The Auteurs #35: Michael Cimino

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