Wisconsin Film Festival: Italian thriller “Salvo” has a grasp that exceeds its reach

SALVO swarthy dude with gun

One more from last week’s Wisconsin Film Festival, as Sean Weitner writes about the Italian crime thriller “Salvo”:

The most common cause of disappointment at the movies is that the filmmakers’ reach exceeds their grasp. Could have been great if they knew what to do with their cast, if their story was as clever as they wanted it to be, if they had found a novel way to build a scene or shot instead of sticking with the tried-and-true.

Not so with “Salvo,” from directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. Their grasp is enormous, and are due the same compliment that was extended to the Coens, the Wachowskis, Lawrence Kasdan, Wes Anderson and many others: For their debut feature, they have made a low-budget crime film that demonstrates a tremendous amount of cinematic thinking.

With “Salvo,” however, it’s their reach that’s stunted. The directors demonstrate the ability to achieve everything they might like to achieve; they just fritter away those gifts.

Salvo (Saleh Bakri) a hitman for one of Palermo’s crime families, is sent to execute some turncoats, which leads him to the house that their ringleader shares with his blind, housebound sister, Rita (Sara Serraiocco). The protocol in this case would be to kill her, too, but he observes her over the course of his stakeout from inside the home, and when the time comes he kidnaps her instead. He locks her into an abandoned factory while trying to reconcile the best action for her with his responsibilities to his capo.

A useful point of reference might be “Gomorrah,” the celebrated 2008 exploration of the modern of modern Italian crime economy told in the interlocking narrative style of “Traffic” or “Syriana.” Though set across the Tyrrhenian Sea from that movie, “Salvo” could be one of the “Gomorrah” story strands plucked out and expanded to feature length. Although, from another perspective, it might be fairer to call it stretched to feature length since it only contains a subplot’s worth of incidents.

For my money, this languid pace is one of the movie’s selling points. That stakeout takes place in real time — 15 silent minutes — but those minutes form a mini-story of its own: We see Rita, listening to music and counting her brother’s money, and watch Salvo as he regards her; then she pauses the music and walks around as if having heard something, showing us a blurred image to simulate her perspective; she starts the music again and he goes upstairs to explore; a delivery person arrives, with dialogue to ensure that we pay attention to the song Rita is listening to; Salvo finds, among other things, a picture of Rita as a child; Rita realizes there is an intruder and affects nonchalance as she determines what to do; then the brother arrives.

It’s a tense sequence, and its length is necessary so that we have time to watch Salvo’s reverse-Stockholm Syndrome thoughts metabolize, since he’s making a decision he knows will have consequences. But if recent Michael Mann movies like “Miami Vice” and “Public Enemies” put you to sleep with their longueurs, “Salvo” will drop you straight into a coma. I like those movies, and I like this aspect of “Salvo” — the filmmakers aren’t wasting our time, they’re piecing together a story visually and aurally, and if it requires patience to appreciate it, well, patience is a virtue.

And the pieces themselves impress. We rarely see Bakri’s face in the film’s early going; for his scenes we’re typically over his shoulder or through his eyes and for her scenes he usually appears as figure lurking unseen in the deep background. This reduces our identification and enhances his menace; you worry about Rita when he’s in her home. While the directors certainly can pull off an action setpiece — they have two quite nice ones, the initial hit and a motorcycle feint, built out of compact, expressive shots — a lot of the big action happens offscreen for aesthetic and, I’m sure, budgetary reasons, but the radio play quality of Rita listening to those scenes makes them nailbiters.

Salvo 1

All of this, however, circles back to the weakness of the film’s conceit. Rita is a proxy for Salvo — he comes to realize that he is also blind and imprisoned by his ties to the criminal life — and while it’s fine that, for instance, this self-awareness improves his relationship with his landlord, such niceties are cheap relative to the distress he imposes on Rita. Best that he hadn’t killed her brother, of course, but her grief is only compounded by the agony of being trapped in his “safe house.”

It’s unclear the degree to which Salvo’s feelings are romantic versus paternalistic, although I don’t think Grassadonia and Piazza contemplated having him abduct a blind boy. Even Rita’s blindness gets sidelined, however. It’s nice that her character isn’t solely defined by her poor sight, but after her abduction, literally nothing happens to her that would play out differently if she were eagle-eyed, and in fact we get a lot of shots of her fixing Salvo with her gaze; based on her early scenes, that seems beyond her ocular abilities. Ah, but Salvo is a beautiful wreck who deserves to be beheld.

Where Salvo gets a character arc, Rita gets nothing, merely the Helen Hunt role of making Salvo want to be a better man, achieved largely via her suffering. As puffed up as Salvo gets about getting to be her Salvo-ation, everything he does for Rita after killing her brother is a distant second to simply driving her directly to a bus stop and giving her 1,000 lire for a ticket. This is where the directors’ reach falters; their lyricism becomes its own end, leaving viewers as dissatisfied as their characters. Like its character, “Salvo” is a beautiful wreck, but that comparison ends there.

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