In the 1920s, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts indicted Niccola Sacco (Riccardo Cucciolla) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (Gian Maria Volontè), two Italian-American anarchists. That state government arrested them for robbing a shoe factory in Braintree and shooting a guard and a paymaster in the process. The film about them, Giuliano Montaldo’s Sacco and Vanzetti, has two other claims to fame. One is Ennio Morricone’s score, one of his more subtle ones. Every silence between notes sucks viewers in. It does that every time the attorney general drags Bartolomeo and Niccola out of their gallows. And this score adds to the scenes when they’re on the courts for their sham trial. The second is Joan Baez, who sings a few songs about the real Sacco and Vanzetti. These songs, like the film itself, remind us of the injustices that the government inflicted.
Sacco and Vanzetti‘s first two acts cover the trial, mixing up its screenplay with flashback scenes showing where either men were when the robbery took place. The film makes for a great example of the court drama. And it’s not just because it find that balance between contemporaneous storytelling and flashbacks. The film, importantly, shows the court’s lack of respect for both the defendants. They also had no respect for the defense’s lawyers, and especially, the witnesses vouching for the defendants. It reminds viewers of that time in history the evils of anti-Italian prejudice. That prejudice was almost as bad as the racism that people of colour face today. And yes, this is an Italian production. But it exposes that prejudice without the American characters seeming like they’re twirling their mustaches.
Sacco and Vanzetti is an Italian and French co-production, and a European perspective on this story feels more sensible than any American version of the story. This European perspective is again, all about balance, a quality it shares in the visual sense. It knows when to have things like bars and barb wire between the camera and the characters to reinforce the obvious. It also knows when to put these characters on the forefront of the frame to obviously humanize them. The enthusiastic viewer may need to take a deep dive on the titular characters. These personalities may or may not match their real life counterparts. Regardless, both Cucciola and Volonte give their characters personality and give nuance to benevolent immigrant archetypes.
Sacco and Vanzetti, finally, inverts the structure of the courtroom drama. Most of those films have an investigation to court structure. As I wrote earlier, the first two acts take place in court. In contrast, the third has some characters reinvestigating what takes place during the trial. One of the activists working for Sacco and Vanzetti confronts a ballistic expert who makes a confesses. He reveals that both the prosecution and the original defense lawyer did not ask questions that may have exonerated the two men. The film came out decades after the men’s execution and years before their posthumous exoneration. This structure, then, reflects real life in that it makes viewers ask questions about the injustices of the past lingering in our present day.
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