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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump