The trailer for Salvatore Giuliano (1962) begins with a town crier walking down a Sicilian street, banging a drum. This is followed by a group of men distributed across the town square, one playing a Jew’s harp. The crier is proclaiming a military curfew, but could as easily be announcing a new show in town. The men are outlaws, preparing to kill, but might be players in a musical performance or dance. The subsequent killing – gunfire flashing through the darkness – is pure son et lumière.

These nocturnal scenes lit by street lights have a stage-like quality, and are representative of a motif that runs through Salvatore Giuliano. Crowds are frequently shown looking on at events from the streets or their balconies. The second half of this broken-backed film takes place mostly in a courtroom. This is Rosi’s only use of a soundstage in a film that prides itself on location shooting in the very place the “real” events it narrates took place; it is dominated by the only two professional actors in the cast; the artifice of its illumination is in marked contrast to the sun-bleached natural lighting outside.

Rather than create black and white heroes and villains, Rosi’s film famously exposes the complicity of police, army, business and the Mafia with Giuliano and his gang. But in other ways, Salvatore Giuliano is pure melodrama. The narrative’s two key events – the 1947 May Day parade at Portella della Ginestra, where a crowd of Communists, men, women and children, is massacred; and Giuliano’s death – are heavily underlined by Piero Piccioni’s ominous, rhythmic, brass-heavy music, sparsely used elsewhere on a soundtrack that prefers the distant sounds of farm animals, the screech of cars and the staccato rhythm of gunfire. Rosi fearlessly employs the jolts of melodrama – from long silence to sudden noise, impassivity to extremes of emotion; the unsignalled shifts between “present” and “past” – to disorient the viewer.

This “theatricality” is an expression of Rosi’s dissatisfaction with neo-realism (he began his career as assistant to Luchino Visconti, a director always straining at that movement’s limits). Rosi said he was interested in realism as opposed to neo-realism, the analysis rather than simple reproduction of reality (1). Salvatore Giuliano is a reconstruction of real events based on documents such as court records, eyewitness accounts, letters and memoirs: a docudrama. Rosi took his stylistic lead from press reports and newsreels, to the extent of reconstructing photographs of the time, such as the steep, high-angle view of Giuliano’s corpse that opens the film (2).

This first scene shows the layers of mediation that obscure any possibility of truth: a murder scene set up by the killers is re-staged by Rosi, replicating a newspaper photograph (which a journalist in the film asks to be taken); this visual bogusness is verbally translated by the examiner, his medico-legal discourse transmuting a lie into official truth. Far from “illustrating” documentary sources, Rosi shows their inadequacy: put them all together and they still do not tell the whole story. A document is not a pure conduit of the “truth”: it is an interpreted, prejudiced fragment of reality that can be contradicted, undermined or superseded by another.

Rosi had also worked for Michelangelo Antonioni (3), and like L’avventura (1960), Salvatore Giuliano is a detective story without a solution. Unlike L’avventura, there is no detective surrogate; Rosi said he himself, or his camera, was the investigator, searching for and sifting through evidence. But Rosi’s statements, like those affirming his didactic realism (4), do him no favours, and make his work sound duller and cruder than it actually is. The self-reflexive interplay of “reality” and fiction, performer and role, document and documentary in his work is closer to someone like Abbas Kiarostami than the purveyors of political thrillers usually listed as Rosi’s peers, such as Elio Petri or Costa-Gavras.

It is frequently noted how Giuliano, the figure around whom all characters, speech and events revolve, is essentially an absence in the film named after him (5). He is most present as a corpse, the camera caressing his topless body as if he were a bandit Christ (compare with photographs of the dead Che Guevara at the end of the decade). Alive, he is a silhouette, a voice in the dark, or a white raincoat, without which he would be indistinguishable from his subordinates.

The film is full of long, slow pans of the harsh Sicilian landscape, an apparently timeless, primitive, virgin land that has to bear the burden of multiple interpretations, from sentimental poetry and nationalist aspiration to subsistence labour and military control. It is, however, unreadable to all except Giuliano and his men, a space they can disappear into, emerge from, command, and spread terror from. These pans seem like “objective” establishing shots, a cinematic correlative to the “voice of God”, newsreel-style narration that provides the historical context to the story. But the source of these pans is usually revealed as Giuliano’s vantage point, surveying town and country, getting ready to ambush and attack, marking out the position of his pursuers. A chilling example of this occurs when a machine-gun appears where the cameraman’s hand would be, and begins shooting at an army jeep. In sequences like this, the camera is less investigative journalist than murderer’s accomplice; only Giuliano and Rosi know how to truly read and map the landscape and narrative, how to stage the events that take place within them (6).

But, of course, this collusion is compromised, omniscience an illusion. Just as the all-seeing Giuliano can’t prevent his death (in the dark), so Rosi can’t avoid producing an abortive narrative. These “open” pans are juxtaposed with shots emphasising restriction, or even the refusal of vision: windows being closed, people looking through grilles and gaps, talking at night or in dim rooms. Ultimately, Rosi’s sympathies are not with Giuliano, but the people who still treat him as a folk hero: the ordinary, disenfranchised people of Montelepre who resist the heavy-handed tactics of the occupying police and army with the only weapons they have, their individual and collective voices, shrieking and wailing, non-verbal and physical, disrupting all attempts at civil or military control, whether it is the identification of a corpse, a round-up of civilians (only five years after the end of World War II) or a police interrogation. This civil disobedience is ultimately more successful than Giuliano’s criminality in undermining state power.


  1. Enrico Costa, “An interview with Francesco Rosi’, Hands Over the City, Criterion DVD Booklet, New York, 2006, p. 16 (translated by Alison Dundy from CinemaCittàno. 1, 2004).
  2. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Salvatore Giuliano”, The Cinema of Italy, ed. Giorgio Bertellini, Wallflower, London and New York, 2004, p. 135.
  3. Salvatore Giuliano was shot by Antonioni’s regular cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo.
  4. Costa, p. 28.
  5. Stuart Klawans, “Confidential Reports: The Investigative Thrillers of Francesco Rosi”, Hands Over the City, p. 7.
  6. Rosi was assistant on Visconti’s Sicily-set La terra trema(1948).

Salvatore Giuliano (1962 Italy 123 mins)

Prod Co: Galatea Film/Lux Film/Vides Cinematografica Prod: Franco Cristaldi Dir: Francesco Rosi Scr: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Enzo Provenzale, Francesco Rosi, Franco Solinas Phot: Gianni Di Venanzo Ed: Mario Serandrei Prod Des: Sergio Canevari, Carlo Egidi Mus: Piero Piccioni

Cast: Salvo Randone, Frank Wolff, Pietro Cammarata, Sennuccio Benelli, Giuseppe Calandra, Max Cartier

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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