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

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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