In its first few minutes, Salvo looks like a stylish gangster flick.
On a sweltering summer day in Palermo, four would-be assassins target a young man and his boss. The younger man, Salvo (Saleh Bakri), quickly dispatches three of them. Then he kills the fourth, but not before learning the name of the rival mob boss.
Salvo has a ritual for such executions. Like a Pentecostal healer pretending to strike out a demon, he grasps his victim by the back of the head, forces him to face the floor, then shoots a bullet through the top of the skull.
At the house of the man who arranged to have him killed, Salvo follows the strains of wretched Italian pop music to the basement. There he finds a young woman, the boss’ sister Rita (Sara Serraiocco), counting euros and stuffing them into envelopes. The camera studies her as she turns around to remove her uncomfortable sneakers. It is obvious from the cast of her eyes that she’s blind.
When Salvo prepares to put a bullet in her head, Rita won’t comply. As she squirms in his grasp, the camera assumes her perspective. Streaks of light glare through the assassin’s fingers and his ghostly silhouette emerges from the darkness. She sinks to the floor, pushing agonized fists into her eye sockets. It’s as though she’s ever seen light before.
Suddenly the film looks much less like a gangster flick.
Co-written and directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, Salvo debuted during Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique this year and walked away with its two principal prizes – the Grand Prix and the Prix Révélation.
The film well deserves its competition and critical accolades. One of the most striking first features of 2013, Salvo is all the more extraordinary because it survives a flat final quarter.
It’s first three-quarters create a visually and aurally absorbing world that balances dramatic tension with snatches of quirky comic relief (embodied in Salvo’s fretful landlord and his domineering wife). Its final quarter, after Rita’s character embraces sight, is flaccid as a limp balloon.
Salvo feels new because so much of the action unfolds bereft of spoken word – leaving the story to focus on how the characters move through their (generally interior, frequently dark and claustrophobic) locations.
Serraiocco turns out a bravura performance as Rita moves from blindness to trauma-induced sightedness, and her depiction of the character’s hyper-sensitive hearing is more self-effacing than usually deployed by beautiful actresses.
It won’t be obvious to non-Italians how Bakri -- the darling of Palestinian’s indie scene -- manages the Sicilian dialect. He’s seldom required to speak more than a few words at a time, but then film noir villains have tended to be taciturn and made to speak with outsider accents.
Salvo is far from a silent film. The soundtrack sometimes sounds as though it’s been heightened to accentuate empathy with Rita’s hearing, but the filmmakers do ensure that the long lapses in in-frame dialogue work in counterpoint to the photography.
The silences in Salvo speak all the more loudly because of the gripping visual beauty of Daniele Cipri’s cinematography, which nicely complements the well-directed performances.
Salvo and Rita’s first encounter, for instance, is captured via a series of longish, perambulating shots, the steady-cam circling the two characters as they move silently through the dimly lit house -- the camera looking on as her face gradually registers the terror of knowing that she is not alone.
Sight, and the light and shadow that make sight possible, is what “Salvo” is about. Grassadonia and Piazza seem less interested in using chiaroscuroas a tool to develop narrative than as a means of depicting sensation for itself.