According to the great pioneer Roberto Rossellini, neorealism was the manifestation of a moral position which inevitably raised problems and forced the audience to meditate on them. Francesco Rosi’s 1962 opus Salvatore Giuliano transcended those definitions of neorealism by establishing a dialectical approach which oscillated between drama and documentary in its journalistic efforts.
While it might seem from the title of the film that Salvatore Giuliano is about the eponymous bandit, Rosi actually set out to paint a comprehensive portrait of the sociopolitical climate of Sicily during the post-war period. In fact, the figure of Giuliano is a purely symbolic one who can mostly be observed through the image of his corpse.
Salvatore Giuliano exists at the intersection of various styles of filmmaking just as the titular figure hid in his mountaintop refuge, caught between the police, the Mafia and the Carabinieri. It follows a non-linear collection of vignettes, being invoked on the screen as if in a dream before disappearing just as quickly in an ephemeral fashion.
Shot in Sicily, the haunting cinematography of Salvatore Giuliano was handled by Gianni Di Venanzo – the legendary artist who had collaborated with the likes of Antonioni and Fellini. His collaboration with Rosi resulted in the creation of one of the most beautiful films shot in black-and-white, a sweltering fever dream where the choreography of human subjects within the frame resembles the graceful movement of ghosts.
Rosi brilliantly captures the prevalent attitudes of the time, chronicling the intensity of the separatist sentiment in Sicily – an island which was neglected and exploited due to its omnipresent poverty. Within that highly specific sphere, Rosi examines how figures like Giuliano rise to power by propagating the image of a reincarnated Robin Hood.
More importantly, the film explores the impact of someone like Giuliano on the lives of the poor shepherds whose helpless mothers can do nothing but cry after they are martyred for a cause they don’t even know. From political monologues in front of indifferent mountains to secret agreements between the Mafia and the police, Rosi patiently documents the factors that have contributed to the destitution of Sicilians.
Just like the relentless news hounds who were following the case of Giuliano with much fervour, Rosi embarked on a journey which required him to conduct extensive research and he was so successful at it that he actually ended up discovering facts about the Giuliano saga that had not been previously reported by the newspapers. With the corruption of the institutions that Rosi uncovers, it is safe to say that those facts were kept hidden for a good reason.
At the end of it all, the poetic power of Salvatore Giuliano rises to great heights because Rosi makes us see the banal reasons for which so many innocent men had to die. The farcical legal proceedings, the indistinguishable institutions of the Mafia and the police, the treacherous Carabinieri; they are all weaved together to form what Martin Scorsese calls a “great historical and political mosaic”.
Those reasons are crystallised forever in the form of the lifeless body of the notorious bandit whose symbolic functions are used by the people in power even after his death. Although he was shot in his underwear in his bed, the authorities make sure that the mythology of Giuliano remains intact by staging his demise and making it look like a shootout. That’s exactly why Salvatore Giuliano is an unprecedented meditation on the structures of power and how they work together to subjugate the people, told with the passion and the silent rage of a disillusioned poet.