The below is a written version of an introduction that I shall make for Salvo at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton this evening (Tuesday 29 April 2014). Come along if you can – though you may also have to suffer me putting in a gratuitous plug for my film, Common Ground (William Brown, UK, 2012), which plays at the American Online Film Awards Spring Showcase from 1 May 2014)!
Salvo is the debut feature of screenwriters Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. It tells the story of a hitman, the titular Salvo (Saleh Bakri), who starts out getting into a gunfight. He chases down his assailants and then goes to the house of Enzo Puleo (Luigi Lo Cascio), the man who organised the hit. There he meets Rita (Sara Serraiocco), a blind woman and Enzo’s sister, who suddenly can see at the moment of her encounter with Salvo.
Subsequent to this encounter, Salvo and Rita go on the run – and must evade the mob, which surely will hunt them down in a quest to find out what has happened to them.
In certain respects, then, the film tells the story of a miracle. But rather than being a miracle couched in a sense of religiosity, we have the miracle functioning in Salvo as something of an allegory.
For, the encounter between Salvo and Rita becomes some sort of primordial event, a transitional moment after which nothing is the same – and this event is based upon the encounter between two people who mutually change.
In short, then, the film is about how love can open our eyes – it can take away our blindness – and it can put us in touch with other people. Indeed, if Jean-Paul Sartre once said that hell is other people, Grassadonia and Piazza might counter this by saying that love, too, is other people, constituted in and by a recognition of other people.
Thus Rita’s literal blindness is accompanied by what the directors call Salvo’s ‘moral blindness’. Indeed, in an interview, Grassadonia explains it thus:
The topic of blindness is important. We come from Sicily, we grew up there, and our experience is that you live surrounded by voluntarily blind people. We told this story, this meeting by two characters affected by two different kinds of blindness: the moral blindness of the mafia killer, who is nothing more than a killing machine at the beginning, and this blind girl, physically blind, but not innocent. She knows exactly her role in that kind of world.
It is in encountering Rita that Salvo can see – and the film works hard stylistically to convey the encounter to us, mainly as a result of its absence of close ups and its absence of faces for the first section of the film, the section that culminates in the miracle.
For, we do not see Salvo’s face until the miracle – if anything we see only disembodied eyes surrounded by darkness. We can surmise two things from this.
Firstly, we can surmise that in a world without faces, people do not exist as humans but as objects that can be killed and discarded without a moral sense of guilt.
Secondly, we can surmise that in having no empathy, it is not that Salvo sees no faces, it is that he himself is also faceless. In encountering Rita, Salvo not only sees her face, but she also sees his, and thus he begins to take on a face.
In other words, identity – Salvo as a recognisable human being – is not something born solipsistically in a body and mind detached from the rest of the world; identity is something that exists only in relation to the world, only with the world. We exist only with other people. Subjectivity is intersubjective.
If the film makes this point, the point does not exist in a bubble. That is, while it it may simply just be that humans can only exist as subjects if there is intersubjectivity, nonetheless the film suggests that we live in a world that lacks recognition of others, a world that lacks empathy, and which is thus a world that encourages what I shall term solipsistic.
So when I say that the point does not exist in a bubble, what I am really asking is: what is this world in which we are encouraged to be solipsistic, blind to each other, rather than with each other?
In interviews, Grassadonia and Piazza talks extensively about how they made the film in their native Sicily, Palermo more specifically. Indeed, in the quotation above, they talk about ‘voluntarily blind people’ there – who in effect turn a blind eye to the mafia, thus accepting its way of life, even if they are not directly involved in it.
In one interview with the ICA, the directors state this clearly:
We are both from Palermo and we naturally chose to set our story in our home town. Palermo is a world where freedom is hazardous. A world that feels the need for a tyrant, an oppressor, is a totally unacceptable state of affairs but somehow understandable. What’s more mysterious is the presence of a silent majority that wishes to be oppressed, that needs to live in a “state of exception”, a state of constant emergency, where violence and oppression are the only laws. A situation where an unencumbered meeting between two human beings is inconceivable.
What is noteworthy here is the use of the term ‘state of exception’ – a concept developed and used at length by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.
For Agamben, the ‘state of exception’ is the generalised totalitarianism of the present age. That is, during exceptional times, a state might give itself increased power in order to keep everyone safe. However, what we increasingly have these days is the way in which all times are presented to us as somehow ‘exceptional’ – and so we live under greater levels of control at all times, under a generalised ‘state of exception’ (a key example for Agamben is the War on Terror in the aftermath of the plane crashes of 11 September 2001).
In suggesting that Salvo reflects upon the ‘state of exception’ that is the mafioso rule of Palermo, Grassadonia and Piazza in fact spread the relevance of their film, such that it might well be speaking not just of Sicily, but perhaps of an Italy that has recently been under the control of a media-magnate. Perhaps even to a world in general, in which political and economic crisis are presented to us as the master narratives that keep us all in our place – and scared in our homes – trusting of no one else, in competition with everyone else.
Not seeing each other as human beings, as subjects, but as threats, opportunities and objects.
This wider relevance of the film is signalled aesthetically, too. It is hard not to read the opening sequences, full of bloodshed, and in which we follow Salvo as he chases down his would-be assassins, as borrowing from computer games, in particular the behind-the-head shot familiar from shooter games (and complete with the odd silences that moving through space can involve in computer games).
In other words, the film suggests via this reference to computer games that its message is relevant to the whole of the contemporary, media-saturated and digital world. That we no longer look at each other – but instead pursue a faceless world characterised by affectless, or unemotional, violence.
Salvo does not just make references to a computer game, however. It also makes reference to other films and/or genres. The filmmakers themselves discuss how their film pays homage to the likes of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, and that it also draws inspiration from Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic, Le Samouraï (France/Italy, 1967) – while its use of a miracle, its sparse dialogue and its interest in procedure also seem to recall the cinema of Robert Bresson (for me at least).
In other words, while the film is about how we are with each other in the world, even at a time when we are encouraged to feel that we not together, that to create a bond with another person is ‘inconceivable’, the film itself is also making bonds with other films; films only exist in an inter-cinematic way, too, it would seem.
And yet, for all of Salvo‘s precursors and reference points, the film had a hard time getting made.
After writing the 2004 comedy Ogni volta che ne te vai/Every Time You Go (Davide Cocchi, Italy, 2004) and the TV movie, Gli Occhi dell’amore/The Eyes of Love (Giulio Base, Italy, 2005), the latter of which suggests an ongoing interest in eyes and looking, Grassadonia and Piazza wrote and directed Rita (Italy, 2009), a short film that in some respects is the basis for Salvo (it is about a blind woman).
It then took them four years to get Salvo off the ground, making the film the product of a five-year process. Piazza recounts his experience thus:
Basically if you’re a first time director and you don’t arrive with the conventional comedy made for television, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to finance a film. In our case, the Italian press was talking about the film because of the support of French television but not the support of the Italian television
In other words, the aesthetics of Salvo, a cinephile’s film that is in part about films, reflects the production history of the film, in that a film about two characters who come to understand the existence of themselves through finally seeing others, is a film that was only made because of a transnational coproduction (with the French) – most Italian producers being too risk-averse, too caught up in the solipsism of contemporary capital, to want to tell a story that reaches out in the way that this one does.
The generalised ‘state of exception,’ then, is also present in the risk-averse nature of the film industry – and it is only in collaborating with strangers, perhaps, that films of this kind can get made. Perhaps it was a concession to commercial interests that the film features prominently on its soundtrack the number one Italian chart hit, ‘Arriverà‘, by Modà, featuring Emma Marrone.
Perhaps this even helps to account for the casting of the film. Salvo is played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, the star of Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains (UK/Italy/Belgium/France, 2009), while a couple of well-known actors have cameons, including Luigi Lo Cascio as Rita’s brother, Enzo. Lo Cascio won a Best Actor Donatello (Italian Oscar) in 2001 for I Cento Passi/One Hundred Steps (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2000), was nominated for the same award two years later for La meglio gioventù/The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana, Italy, 2003), and was nominated for Best Director in 2013 for La città ideale/The Ideal City (Italy, 2012).
Leading actress Sara Serraiocco, meanwhile, stars in only her first movie. Perhaps this is emblematic of her character, that she is revealed to the world as the world is revealed to her. But then her character is perhaps a bit more canny than this – she is counting mafia money when we first meet her. That is, while Salvo may romanticise her, the film arguably does not, with the ‘miracle’ potentially being in Salvo’s head – it is an allegory, not necessarily a miracle to be believed in a literal sense – with the cheesiness of ‘Arriverà’ as the central musical motif also suggesting as much.
The directors quote great Italian writer Italo Calvino in relation to the film:
In the inferno of the living, where we live every day, that we form by being together, there are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
One can argue that the film is not without complications; Salvo and Rita do not necessarily escape the cycle of violence and it is perhaps only by perpetuating it that they stand a chance of surviving. Indeed, as Salvo’s name suggests, not only might he ‘save’ Rita, but he might also be a force for the state of exception, in that ‘salvo’ also means ‘except’ (in the sense of ‘save for’ – as in, ‘I would have been killed, save for a hitman coming to my rescue’).
Nonetheless, as a film Salvo is not inferno – and so we must give it space and thus help it to endure in a world of rapidly recycled and endlessly forgettable films.