Home Video Hovel: The Sicilian, by Tyler Smith
With his film The Sicilian, Michael Cimino – the director known for such epics as The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate – has managed to take the true story of a modern day Robin Hood and turn it into a mildly interesting misfire. While one can appreciate Cimino’s unconventional narrative approach – telling the story with no clear arc or consistent plot development – the result is a mess of a film, with a protagonist that should be inspiring, but is ultimately a complete bore. At the time of the film’s release, much of this was put down to the studio taking Cimino’s original vision and gutting it, removing about 30 minutes. However, even with the newly restored director’s cut – recently released by Shout Factory – the film remains tedious and unengaging.
The film revolves around Salvatore Giuliano, a freedom fighter in 1940s Italy. Postwar, the country was in shambles, being run by corrupt politicians, crime bosses, and opportunistic clergy. These power-hungry leaders kept resources out of the hands of the common people of Sicily, leading to Giuliano to take matters into his own hands, flagrantly robbing from the rich to give to the poor. He was a hero, and one that would become internationally known. However, he knew that his violent antics were only a short term solution. For any real change, he’d have to find a way to align with his enemies and change the entire system. He would soon find this a much more difficult situation in which to maneuver, and he was eventually assassinated.
Like John Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde before him, Giuliano tapped into the imagination of people all around the world. In The Sicilian, this attention has given him a bit of an ego, but he strives to remain humble and self sacrificing. Without Giuliano himself playing up his legend, the burden falls to the supporting characters to speak in such overwhelming hyperbole that it often becomes laughable. Between the deifying way that everybody talks about him – even his enemies – and the parade of beautiful women throwing themselves at his feet, one could be forgiven for thinking that this was some sort of puff piece funded by Giuliano’s family members. It’s rare for a film so generally uninterested in exploring its main character’s humanity to find a way to be engaging, and The Sicilian is no exception.
To its credit, there is one twenty-minute section in the middle of the film – in which Giuliano is forced to execute an informer – that really works. This informer is a man that has known Giuliano for years; a man he loved. But informers cannot be trusted, and this man must be made an example of. So, in the middle of a cheering crowd in the town square, Giuliano machine guns this pleading man in the face. It is an act of extreme brutality, and exposes for the briefest of moments the chilly nature of our hero. Had the film been willing to follow this path, alternately building up and deconstructing the legend of Giuliano, this might have been a genuinely great movie, cut from the same cloth as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
But, unfortunately, the film is too preoccupied with simply printing the legend. This is made all the more frustrating when we consider Christopher Lambert’s confused, stilted performance as Giuliano. Lambert, never a particularly charismatic on-screen presence, approaches the character with virtually no curiosity for what drives him. He plays the character as written, but with none of the dynamic personality that so many other characters insist Giuliano possesses. When the rest of the film is building up its protagonist, it’s important to find just the right actor to fulfill our expectations. Unfortunately, Christopher Lambert is not that actor.
John Turturro, on the other hand, actually could have been. Turturro plays Giuliano’s right hand man, whose intense love for his leader almost borders on attraction. Since the character is so often a mouthpiece for the writer, constantly talking up the main character, he is occasionally annoying. But Turturro plays him with a passion that made me wish the film was about him, not Giuliano. The same can be said of Terence Stamp, who plays Prince Borsa, the aristocratic and perpetually bemused figurehead of Sicily. Or Joss Ackland, playing a pragmatic crime boss. Whenever any of these men is on screen, the energy picks up and we see the potential of the film. But, as always, it is immediately dashed when Giuliano opens his mouth. This is partially due to Lambert’s wooden performance, but also the writer’s complete inability to craft a believable and interesting character. He speaks in platitudes and generalities, making him seem more like a half-assed politician than an outlaw willing to kill to make his country a better place.
By the end of the film, when it comes time for Giuliano to be assassinated, I was just happy for it all to be over. The Sicilian is a waste of a good story, a great supporting cast, and a hardworking crew, who adequately recreate 1940s Italy, both in costume and art direction. I’m not quite sure what exactly Cimino was trying to achieve with this film, but Shout Factory has given him his day in court by restoring it to his original vision. A vision of what, I’m afraid I just can’t say.