Salvo is a stylishly told film about redemption in which an assassin for the Sicilian mafia (Saleh Bakri) spares the life of his victim’s blind sister, Rita (Sara Serraiocco). The hitman pays the price for this uncharacteristic mercy and, apparently, finds peace.
The debut feature of the Sicilian Writer/Director team Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza is seeped in the atmosphere of its Palermo setting, making it a natural for The Grand Prix at Cannes, which it won last year. While the film starts out strong, it has nowhere to go in the second half but into the realm of a misguided magic realism – or, this being Italy – romantic spiritualism.
You would think that Sicilian writer-directors would be able to find an Italian actor to portray their eponymous anti-hero. Salvo is, after all, one of many employees of the Sicilian mafia. When we first see him, he is waking up in a run-down pensione in Palermo where it’s 40 degrees at 5:30am. Perhaps no local actor would dare to take on the role, however, as Salvo’s first job is a drive by shooting. Just this week in Puglia, a real-life mafia boss, his girlfriend and her three-year-old son were killed in their car by a hitman.
In any event, the job fell to Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, best known as the handsome, young trumpet player in the 2007 Israeli film, The Band’s Visit. Bakri looks like a male model straight out of GQ or L’Uomo Vogue and it’s just as well as Salvo is in every scene and is not the talkative type.
The directors have nailed the atmosphere – Palermo heat, the walled up beachfront houses, the unromantic sea and the arid, abandoned streets with traces of small industry – and the details of Salvo’s routine that lend the film its authenticity. Particularly good are the scenes in his pensione where he is ceremoniously served a lunch he never eats by the suspicious, authoritarian landlady and a docile man who is in awe of the stranger.
Ironically, the film is weakened by its distinguishing feature, Salvo’s relationship with the blind sister (Serraiocco) of his target. We know Salvo is fascinated by her when he lies to his boss (Mario Pupella) on the phone, reporting that she has been killed.
A bad man falling for an innocent, helpless woman is a thin and predictable, if not overly familiar story line, and Rita’s bland character is not distinctive enough to mask that impression. This might have been remedied had the chemistry between the two been as hot as the Sicilian sun, but it isn’t.
Rita’s transformation, however is anything but predictable; in fact, you might not realise what has happened or why. It is also a plot-spoiler (so no more clues), involving some spiritual mumbo jumbo that hardly seems justified.