Review: Sacco and Vanzetti

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

When challenged that the American and rightwing villains in his State of Siege were too thoroughly villainous and the leftwing revolutionaries too absurdly decent and clean-cut, Costa-Gavras disingenuously replied that he saw nothing terribly wrong in that: why shouldn’t the Left indulge itself with black-and-white entertainments when the Right had been doing so for years? Sacco and Vanzetti can cop the same plea, but it has plenty more to recommend it. John Simon named the film on his 1971 Ten Best List because, he maintained, it dramatically brought to light a reprehensible miscarriage of justice callously perpetrated by officials of the government which ought never be forgotten.

Most of the time Giuliano Montaldo builds his historical reconstruction out of image-facts that fairly bludgeon the viewer into shock. But never into incredulity: the appalling thoroughness of the documentation mitigates against that. The film’s narrative tactics involve keeping the audience in partial darkness. With some vague, rather legendary notion of the case lurking behind us, we watch as Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two politically dedicated but socially benign immigrants, are taken into custody in the early Twenties, accused of participating in a payroll robbery and a couple killings, and hounded toward martyrdom. We see the crime itself at first in abrupt, impressionistic glimpses that implicitly undercut the value of the witnesses’ testimony before the trial lawyers have even begun to do the same. We have little chance to relate the case to anything outside itself; it becomes a purely theatrical instance of history-as-melodrama further abstracted from reality by the penchant of spokesmen on the Left as well as the Right for treating the defendants as social symbols rather than men accused of a crime.

Within this mode some powerful things are privileged to occur: both defendants make a number of mesmerizingly eloquent statements in the course of the trial and thereafter, even though at least one, Sacco (Riccardo Cucciolla), had been pointedly characterized earlier as barely competent in English; far from weakening the film or even calling for a generous suspension of disbelief, this tends to operate in validation of the unspoken idea that any man may find greatness within himself when held in the crucible of seven years’ trial-by-ordeal. On the bad guys’ side Geoffrey Keen as the trial judge and the hawk-nosed Gustav von Seyffertitz type cast as the governor seem to be auditioning for an underground comic strip; but the fastidious Cyril Cusack, as the prosecutor, permits glimpses of a pathological, personal motivation behind his behavior as the government’s key hatchet man. Like many (righteous or selfrighteous) didactic artists, Montaldo is occasionally devious (or, more likely, blind to his own susceptibility), as when he juxtaposes Sacco’s moving letter to his son against abstract newsreel footage of a confrontation between police and anarchists—shortly after condemning the prosecution for providing the jury with photos of a similar event while Sacco was giving otherwise innocuous testimony on the witness stand. And his admirable method of letting the awful facts speak for themselves is regrettably abandoned when the archangel of leftwing sentimentality, Joan Baez, is rung in anachronistically on the soundtrack to invite the audience into a passionate singalong.

RTJ

SACCO AND VANZETTI
Direction: Giuliano Montaldo. Screenplay: Fabrizio Onofri, Montaldo. Cinematography: Silvano Ippoliti. Music: Ennio Morricone; songs by Joan Baez and Morricone, sung by Baez.
The Players: Riccardo Cucciolla, Gian Maria Volonté, Cyril Cusack, Milo O’Shea, Geoffrey Keen, William Prince.

Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson


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