DIR/WRI: Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza • PRO: Massimo Cristaldi, Fabrizio Mosca • DOP: Daniele Ciprì • ED: Desideria Rayner • DES: Marco Dentici • CAST: Saleh Bakri, Luigi Lo Cascio, Sara Serraiocco
There is a temptation teased at any cinema-savvy audience member in the opening moments of every Italian film having done festival rounds. It is to buy that suggestion made inherent by cinema history that what we are about to see is something high-concept and arty that demands to be appreciated by anyone with a taste for high-culture. As Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Salvo flickers into life with moody storm sounds scoring dull blue blurs of light, like the dying Aurora Borealis, one senses the temptation is being offered by the writing-directing team as more of a guarantee. Apart from this, this 30-odd seconds of eerie nothingness later transpires to be indicative of Salvo’s story-telling aesthetic, in that it is a story spoken in sounds and visions that considers itself non-didactic.
Salvo tells the story of a mob enforcer who foils an attack on his employer and tracks the man who did it only to encounter said Mafioso’s blind sister, Rita, en route and opt not to murder her along with her brother, which in turn leads to the titular Salvo encountering an existential crisis that forms the core of the film.
Set in Palermo, the film has a distinctly neo-Western vibe to it, as well as sporting the less indirect influences of 2005’s South African hood-flick Tsotsi and Léon. There is a sub-plot involving Rita regaining her sight in Salvo’s care which adds elements of magical realism. Put short, it is a fable set within the grimy slums of 2008’s Gomorrah. These influences are crucial to mention because without them there would simply be no film to watch, which is not an accusation of plagiarism per say; Salvo wears the badges of its enablers with glee, as though they military decorations.
The film’s great strength is in its shooting style, which is as often immersive and tense as it is scoped and beautiful. The opening 20 minutes depict an assassination attempt followed by a foot-chase followed by an assassination in return with so few cuts and so much gritty handheld camera it is as though the intro is a baby had by the styles Paul Greengrass and Alfonso Cueron. The film’s grand centrepiece, which will deservedly receive any plaudits coming the film’s way, is a tracking shot which switches perspectives between Salvo and Rita as Salvo awaits her brother’s return and she gradually senses his presence. It is easily the best sequence in the film and Salvo is worth a watch for it alone.
The film’s mid-section is engaging in its social cultural setting and the Léon-esque tropes in Salvo and Rita’s developing relationship, but at a solid fifty or so minutes this goes on far too long and my interest had began to wane by the time the third act slings one headlong into full Western territory comprised of a dust-bowl stand-off in a ghost-town and a blood-soaked elopement. The final 20 minutes are almost engaging enough to bring it back up to speed but not quite so to glaze over some glaring, unfortunate flaws.
The acting is often two-dimensional and wooden and it is seemingly nobody’s fault. The minimal dialogue Saleh Bakri (Salvo) is given to work with would have been appropriate were he working within the mythical plain of the original Western, but here it jars with the would-be realistic surroundings, leaving him difficult to fathom and impossible to sympathize with. Physically, his screen-presence is awesome but even the most charismatic of actors would struggle to warm the vacant structure of the film. There is a large greasy slice of flab to trim in the form of an attempted family pastiche with his lodging family and this amongst other foibles helps to determinedly sap the wind from the film’s sails throughout. It is as though it believes itself to be a Hemingway novel yet any reader would struggle to find the prose as understated as its director does. Salvo’s biggest letdown is the much better film one cannot help but see buried in a thin film of rubble. This is by no means a bad film. It is simply not as good as it could have been.
Salvo is released on 21st March 2014