Human touch: Sara Serraiocco as Rita.
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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.

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.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.