News Column

An angel, murderous and miraculous

July 11, 2013

YellowBrix

July 11--BEIRUT -- How do murderers sound? That question has been a source of creative speculation among filmmakers since villainous characters were first made to speak. The murderer's voice became a topic of conversation at Cannes earlier this year after the world premiere of "Salvo," co-written and directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza.

The film debuted during the Semaine de la Critique and walked away with its principal prizes -- the Grand Prix Nespresso and the Prix Revelation. "Salvo" will have its Middle East premiere at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Thursday evening, closing the theatre's successful restaging of Critics' Week.

The premise of the film's narrative is not new.

It is a sweltering summer in Palermo -- the Sicilian city that means "Mafia." A young man in black and an older man are the target of four would-be assassins. The younger man, Salvo (Saleh Bakri), quickly dispatches three of them. Before putting a bullet in his skull, he forces the third assailant to reveal the name of his employer -- Renato Pizzuto.

Soon Salvo is outside Pizzuto's house. Following the strains of wretched Italian pop music to the basement, he finds a young woman (Sara Serraiocco), counting euros and stuffing them into envelopes. The camera studies her as she turns around to remove her uncomfortable sneakers and it is obvious from the cast of her eyes that she's blind.

Bakri's character turns to search the house and the girl immediately shuts off the music, as if sensitive to the unfamiliar sounds his presence has stirred up. She goes about her chores, then, and he continues his search. An off-frame phone call and a grocery delivery reveal the young woman to be Pizzuto's sister, Rita.

A series of longish, perambulating shots circle the two characters as they move silently through the dimly lit house, the camera looking on as her face gradually registers the terror of knowing that she is not alone.

Pizzuto returns and Salvo takes his revenge. The killing takes place off-frame, but by now the viewer is aware of Rita's sensitive hearing, so watching her face react to the sound of her brother being strangled seems worse than if it were playing out on screen.

It looks as though Rita will get a bullet in the head. When conducting such close quarters executions, the hit man likes to grasp his victim by the skull with one hand and push it forward so that the face is parallel with the floor. This could stem from a desire to avert their gaze but the gesture has the air of a Pentecostal healer pretending to strike out a demon.

Rita won't comply, and as she squirms in his grasp, the camera assumes her perspective. Streaks of light glare through the assassin's fingers and his ghostly silhouette emerges from the darkness. She sinks to the floor, pushing agonized fists into her eye sockets, suggesting it's the first time she's ever seen light like this.

Baffled, Salvo binds and gags Rita. He takes her and Pizzuto's corpse to an abandoned industrial facility -- scabby sheet metal structures littered with plastic bundles, surrounded by a landscape poisoned by chemical runoff.

He buries the brother in the slag heap outside -- another source of aural agony for Rita -- and keeps her locked up within. Not killing Rita along with her brother doesn't depart from genre convention quite as radically as the inexplicable return of her vision, but -- even without dialogue -- it's apparent that Salvo has departed from the playbook.

Professional killers have tended to be taciturn in cinema. If a society frowns upon murder, assassins ought not be well spoken. So the movies have demanded that killers' speech be deficient. Film noir villains were made to speak with outsider accents -- working class, unrefined, foreign.

These conventions continue to be refined. In "No Country for Old Men," U.S. novelist Cormac McCarthy beautifully realized the latent weight of late-20th-century evil in the rogue killer Anton Chigurh. Writer-director team Joel and Ethan Coen nicely recast that creature for film, channeling McCarthy through the Spanish-accented voice of Javier Bardem, adorned with a ridiculous Reagan-era haircut.

"Salvo" is a stylish picture that deserves the critical chatter churned up in its wake.

The principal actors turn in fine performances. It won't be obvious to non-Italians how Bakri manages the Sicilian dialect. A Palestinian actor -- the darling of the indie scene there -- he's seldom required to speak more than a word or two at a time, but (as with Chigurh) there is strong precedent for his sounding a bit alien.

The writing is intelligent enough to provide quirky comic relief in Enzo Puleo, Salvo's fretful landlord, and his domineering wife. Salvo also has a curious fondness for Lacoste shirts. This will raise a smile among anyone recalling the company's controversial decision to withdraw its funding from a European photo competition a couple of years back, reportedly because the work of a shortlisted artist, Bethlehem-born Larissa Sansour, was "too pro-Palestinian."

Jokes aside, the plotting is not fully realized, structurally speaking, but the writing compensates for its shortcomings with its elusive narrative restlessness and sparing dialogue.

It's because so much of the action unfolds bereft of spoken word -- leaving the story to focus on how the characters move through their (generally interior, frequently dark and claustrophobic) locations -- that "Salvo" feels new.

This is far from a silent film -- it sometimes sounds as though the soundtrack has been heightened, to accentuate empathy with Rita's hearing -- but the filmmakers do ensure that the long lapses in in-frame dialogue work in counterpoint to the photography.

The silences in "Salvo" speak all the more loudly because it is a thing of gripping visual beauty. Indeed, it would be difficult to carry off such a taciturn film without the steady hand of Daniele Cipri at the camera.

The vistas that open up to the newly sighted Rita are handsomely shot but ugly. While confined in the abandoned factory, Rita welcomes her vision by blocking all the windows.

At this point the film is poised on the verge of tantalizing narrative and stylistic possibilities, yet the marriage of narrative and visual potential is not consummated: Once she embraces sight, Rita's character becomes progressively less engaging.

When the filmmakers lose interest in retaining the integrity of the realist narrative, coherence is sustained by the visual motifs to which Cipri's camera returns, albeit without the atmospheric tension of the first half of the film.

Ultimately sight is what "Salvo" is about. Notwithstanding Serraiocco's bravura depiction of Rita's movement from blindness to trauma-induced sightedness, the first suggestion this is something more allusive and gripping than just another Sicilian Mafiosi flick comes much earlier.

The camera avoids framing Bakri properly at the start, preferring close-up shots of his eyes and hands. In a moment that foreshadows his preternatural powers as an angel of death, Salvo appears to lose track of a target. To find him, he literally shuts his eyes.

"Salvo" screens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Thursday evening at 8 p.m. For more information call 01 204 084 or visit www.metropoliscinema.net.

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(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

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