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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

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 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era