Gangster movies are often defined by plot twists and duplicitous schemers that are hard to trust and sometimes feel for. These movies sometimes feel hard to keep up with, and their characters are often defined by their flaws. The darkness in their motivations and the inevitable double crosses speak to plot and hopefully propel character development. Heart hardly ever comes to mind when one thinks of a crime film. But Salvo, the new gangster film by Italian directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza has heart. That it hardly sacrifices suspense for its soul is testament to the strength of the filmmakers, here making their feature film debut with international distribution.
Salvo is a collaborative work between Grassadonia and Piazza not only in directing but also in writing. For much of the film, their storytelling feels compact and graceful. The film has a patient quality, and there’s hardly any dialogue, but it is hardly languorous. The movie opens with a tense chase scene that lasts nearly 30 minutes. Though the directors allow the scene to unfold with patience that does not mean it lacks suspense. The life or death danger is established early on with an intense shootout on a walled-in street in the seaside city of Palermo. It’s refreshing to watch motorcycle-mounted assassins, sinisterly dressed all in black, fail, and it speaks to the intimidating skills of the film’s protagonist (Saleh Bakri), a mob boss’ (Mario Pupella) deadly protector, who does not reveal his name until nearly the end of the film. Obscuring him further, the camera mostly focuses on his eyes either in a rear-view mirror or in close up. When the chase turns into a foot pursuit with the hunted becoming the hunter, the camera maintains its distance or only offers shots of his back. It adds to the scenes’ intensity.
Throughout Salvo, the directors show a smart understanding of camera placement, which was revealed by their award-winning short “Rita,” a film about a blind girl who goes off for a swim at the beach with a young thief who had sneaked into her home to hide from his pursuers. In the short, the directors used no reverse shots, as the camera focused solely on the cherubic-faced lead who could not see, so there was no need to show anything from her POV. This technique creates empathy from the audience and a visceral sense of suspense. With Salvo they take it up another notch, as the chase comes to a slow close, and the killer enters a house where a blind young woman, also named Rita (Sara Serraiocco) counts money. Once again, the lack of reverse shots is employed. A sense of suspense is allowed to draw out, as Rita tries to act unawares of the stranger in her presence, who is often reduced to a shadow in the background that follows her around the house.
For much of the film there’s little dialogue. The directors are clearly more interested in creating a story that relies more on visuals than literal explanations. The movie therefore demands striking visuals, and the directors deliver with a strong sense of composition. From landscapes to interiors, the film has a vibrant visual vocabulary. It never feels ornate, but it does feel vivid. Cinematographer Daniele Ciprì uses mostly deep focus, which allows scenes that are blurred from the perspective of Rita to stand out. There are some drawn-out scenes of the mundane, but the directors keep them interesting with the composition of shots. The colors of the film gives it a high contrast tone that recalls similar films of the ’70s. Its deliberate pace also feels like this film belongs to an earlier era, not to mention the fact that today’s technology means little to the movie’s cat-and-mouse story. The tools of these people is violence, after all, so it’s all about cars and guns, though these devices are never allowed to overshadow the characters. Sometimes the violence occurs off-screen, which only enhances the film’s thrills. The directors also stage varied shots that are filled with surprise and atmosphere, recalling a well-laid out comic book. This is narrative through visuals in the best way.
The tone is true to the film’s theme as well. It’s about a gangster given a chance to restore his humanity, personified by a seemingly helpless blind girl who generates great sympathy but also a respectable tenacity. For much of the film, the drama does not feel forced or contrived. It’s allowed to unfold organically. But sometimes the film’s theme is too heavy-handedly laid out, especially toward the end, and then it ends on a sentimental note of mysticism and tragedy, which was never necessary from the film’s start. The contrivance betrays the film’s earlier astuteness and feels like hokum compared to its first 90 minutes. Still, Salvo is a strong debut that’s stylish and evocative by a pair of new filmmakers from Italy worth keeping tabs on.
Salvo runs 104 minutes, is in Italian with English subtitles and is not rated (of course there’s gangster blood shed). It opened in the Miami are exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided me with a screener for the purpose of this review.