A moody thriller of a cool hitman on the wrong side of the mob in sizzling Sicily, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Salvo is seeking out a new vision.
Blind Chance by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Sicily has a long cinematic history – from the saltwater neorealism of Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema to the Mafiosi underworld of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and more recently, the sweaty heat of Emanuele Crialese’s Respiro. And Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Salvo has it all, with its story of a Cosa Nostra hitman forging a new path in the stifling Palermo heat. There’s even something of Il Gattopardo in the film’s portrait of a dying world. But there’s also something very unique about Salvo – not so much its portrait of a ruthless and virtually mute assassin or in its story of a blind witness, but in the wayward detail of Salvo’s existence – living upstairs from a dry cleaners and served elaborate meals in his room by his landlord and landlady, as well as his touching and understated relationship with victim Rita. A chance encounter, and a refreshingly non-romantic one, that causes the scales to fall from their eyes and changes both their lives.
It’s Palermo, Sicily and the summer heat is stifling. Mafia hitman Salvo (Saleh Bakri) can’t sleep, but tomorrow is a big day. As a consignment of drugs are intercepted by a rival mob and Salvo is in charge of putting the foolhardy upstarts down. He ends up at the house of a young drug dealer whose house is empty except for his blind Rita (Sara Serraiocco) counting money in the basement. Aware of a presence, Rita searches the house anxiously while Salvo eludes her. Until her brother comes home, who Salvo promptly murders. Knowing the mob will kill him if he leaves a witness, he’s torn between his duty and compassion. And as he grants Rita a reprieve, taking her to an abandoned and derelict cement factory while he works out his next move. But as Rita starts to regain her sight and the mafia boss closes in, it’s time for both of them to start a new life. With only each other for company.
From the opening shot of blurred curtains, the idea of vision is foregrounded in Salvo, or perhaps rather the lack thereof. The slow-motion chase sequence as blind Rita searches for Salvo is both mesmerising and intense, underscored dramatically by only Rita’s desperate breathing and a ticking clock. The impressionistic sequences where Rita regains her sight are equally outstanding – as, with the shock of a gun held to her head, flashes of light pierce her field of vision , or the wispy silhouette of a man – a black figure melting into white. Yet this theme of vision only takes us so far – through blinds and bars, it metamorphoses into a desire for freedom and change, envisioning a new life beyond their present situation. For both Salvo and Rita are in the same predicament – caught in a dark world they’re now looking to escape.
It’s perhaps ironic that this mafiosi hit man should bear the name Salvo, meaning “I Save”. And while there are plenty of corpses littering the assassin’s path, Salvo chooses to save Rita, the innocent victim par excellence – female, blind and beautiful. Sara Serraiocco gives a fantastic performance, making the scenes of her blindness utterly believable. And she’s wild and strong-willed enough to escape the film’s easy paradigm of strong and silent man and weak, helpless woman. For even if directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza refuse to provide any backstory or motivation, even reducing their hero to a subpar Melvillian iceman, there’s a very human story of deep emotions desperate to get out, as through an exchange of looks Rita and Salvo learn to trust each other and set off together on a new path – an escape from Sicily across the water.
While Salvo struggles with its lack of human story, creating characters it’s difficult to care for, the devil is in its delicious detail, like the driver switch made with a local mafia runner when Salvo is driving into a police control. Or Salvo’s meek landlord he initiates a male bond of solidarity with against his shrewish wife over dinner, offering him a glass of water and suggesting she give the dog a bath. With its desperate heat and grimy homes, Salvo hints at a contemporary meaning – Italy’s current economic plight, it’s struggle to escape corruption and live an honest life. And while the film is scored (ad nauseam) by Moda’s popular hit Piangerai (I Will Cry), this low-key Italian misery feels more like self-pity than a thirst for change, Salvo ending with its hero looking out over the sea, at a freedom and escape beyond his grasp. Perhaps, as the film rather morosely suggests, we’re not able to change what we are after all. Or perhaps all we need is a new vision.
Salvo is released on 21st March 2014 in the UK