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Salvo by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza: Ways of seeing

The story of a Sicilian hit man whose life is changed by the blind sister of his intended target struggles on the border between grittiness and sentimentality.

Sara Serraiocco.
Human touch: Sara Serraiocco as Rita.

The default position for blind characters in cinema tends to be one of vulnerability – the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, in which Audrey Hepburn is menaced by Alan Arkin, being the gold standard. But there is also the chance that blindness will bring qualities beyond sight: even second sight, as in the case of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Salvo throws in its lot initially with the first model by placing a young blind woman in the hands of a murderer, before shifting towards the second.

The directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, who also wrote the screenplay, have explored this idea before; their short film Rita (2009) concerned a blind girl whose encounter with an intruder expands her horizons unexpectedly. The inventive visual style of Salvo almost distracts us from noticing that neither approach (showing the blind as resourceful victims or as potential mystics who are more sensuous than the rest of us) is free of condescension.

Salvo (Saleh Bakri) is a hit man working in Palermo for the Sicilian mafia. His specialities are killing ruthlessly and leaving the top buttons of his polo shirt undone. He doesn’t say much – the shots fired by him in the course of the film outnumber easily the number of words spoken – but then with peepers like those, he doesn’t have to. A line from Superbad springs to mind: “Have you ever looked into his eyes? It was like the first time I heard the Beatles.”

There’s another reason why Grassadonia and Piazza keep cutting to close-ups of those eyes. In a movie this light on dialogue, the emphasis falls naturally on what the characters see or don’t see. When Salvo breaks into the home of his latest target, he finds instead the man’s sister, Rita (Sara Serraiocco). She is blind. At first, she is oblivious to Salvo. Once she detects his presence, there is a gripping moment when she tries to conceal her awareness of him, pottering around acting carefree while her breathing hastens audibly. Daniele Ciprì’s camera has different modes of address for the two main characters. It follows behind the predatory Salvo, admiring his square head and the sweat glistening on the back of his neck. With Rita, it moves cautiously backwards as she walks towards us, so that we can’t see what is in front of her.

This inventiveness extends to the way the directors frame violence. The film begins with a blunt action sequence in which Salvo reverses his car into two adversaries on motorbikes before opening fire on another vehicle and pursuing a fugitive over a wall. It is thrillingly staged but also mildly misleading, since the rest of the film goes to great lengths to conceal violence. When Salvo commits murder, he stands between his victim and the camera. When Rita’s brother arrives home, we are shown only her terrified face while assorted breakages and gruesome noises are heard off-screen.

Our tolerance for explicit violence tends to fall as we get older and, perhaps, more cognisant of our impending frailty. But the more we see of it on-screen, the greater our admiration for movies that can incorporate brutality without necessarily showing it. Complex sound design does much of the work in establishing atmosphere and it plays a part, too, in mapping out the relationship between Salvo and Rita. When he locks her in an abandoned building because he cannot bring himself to kill her, she pummels the metal door with her fists, the noise an affront to his silent world.

Soon, however, he is playing her favourite cheesy pop song while he drives. Rita may have brought out the empathy in this hardened killer but there is always the possibility of a relapse, as a colleague discovers when he casts aspersions on Salvo’s choice of in-car music.

It’s a pity the storytelling isn’t as interesting as the sound and cinematography. A film about a hit man redeemed by the vitality of a beautiful blind woman will always struggle to shake off sentimentality and Salvo doesn’t struggle very hard. There is some interest in the suspicion that Salvo has a secret that the movie can’t express: his sleeping form inspires admiration from another man and he could give Richard Gere in American Gigolo a run for his money when it comes to brooding enigmatically. Maybe I’m reading too much into the involvement here of the gay-centric UK distributor Peccadillo Pictures. Salvo is probably just like any unrepressed straight man who’ll break your jaw if you laugh at his love of Europop.