Sunday, 29 June 2008

Banditi a Milano / Bandits in Milan

For me, Carlo Lizzani is one of the largely unsung heroes of the Italian cinema. A politically committed figure who started out as the writer of a number of neo-realist films and as a documentarist, he increasingly moved into directing genre films in the 1960s and 1970s.

It sounds like a somewhat unlikely career trajectory until we bear in mind that the best known of his early works, Guiseppe De Santis's Bitter Rice, itself combine neo-realism and noir, political engagement and entertainment.

An expose of the exploitation of itinerant rice planters and harvesters in the Po Valley it was ironically criticised by Marxist commentators for its own exploitative elements, most famously the iconic image of Silvana Mangano wearing a tight sweater and short trousers working in the fields. These, the critics argued, had nothing to contribute to the class struggle.

What these critics forgot and what Lizzani has always remembered is that exploitation is a way to expose the mass audience to political content. It was all well and good for these same critics to prefer Luchino Visconti's La Terra trema on grounds of ideological and aesthetic purity but not so effective when we consider that it had to be subtitled in Italy itself for the characters' Sicilian dialect to be comprehensible and that its box-office failure put an end to the Visconti and the PCI's plans for two further similarly themed films.

Though some of the images are somewhat non-documentary realist, it's worth remembering that the interrogation and torture sequences in Rome, Open City are expressionist rather than realist.

Pre-dating the post-Dirty Harry and French Connection boom in Italian police films, Bandits in Milan has a different look and feel to the typical 70s poliziotto, with Lizzani taking an documentary like approach to his subject – a reconstruction of a real heist which turned the center of Millan into a racetrack and unfortunate bystanders into targets.

At the same time, however, Lizzani is careful not to let forget that we are watching a movie, whether the opening freeze frame that shows one of the bandits in flight and then presents his capture by an angry mob, or the later – but chronologically earlier – scene in which the robbers' lookout tries to convince a curious passer by that a commercial is being filmed inside the bank, that it's not being robbed for real.

The film has a curious structure, beginning with ten minutes of little vignettes that, besides introducing Tomas Milian's police chief, give a kaleidoscopic portrait of crime and the city.

Milian, facing the press.

Following an old timer's remarks that the new generation of career criminals have no restraints and no respect, we get the shaking down of a nightclub and a gambling den by a protection racket. Then, in what seems like a dress rehearsal for the later Storie di vita e malavita, we get the recruitment of a naïve young woman, played by Margaret Lee, into prostititution and her eventual murder at the hands of her pimp.

Robber, terrorist or ultra?

Finally, as one of the robbers is interrogated by Inspector Basevi, the main story begins to unfold via his confession.

Basevi learns that the Turin-based gang were behind the robbery of three Milan banks in the space of half an hour the previous year, hitting the first one and making sure that the alarm is triggered to draw police cars there as they move on to the second, repeat the trick there and then go on to the third.

Volonte looking for inspiration

The mastermind behind the gang, who have made some 17 bank robberies over the preceding few years is Cavallero, played by Gian Maria Volonte. A keen strategist who leaves nothing to chance and enjoys the thrill of robbery as much as the money it brings, he's charismatic, megalomaniac and has a liking for existentialist literature and military history.

Cavallero has also seen to it that the gang have set themselves up a legitimate business as a front, complete with a secretary, whom he amusing tells not to wear short skirts and, more practically, to never have her boyfriend around the office. He also keeps a balance sheet of the profits and losses from each robbery, all the way down to noting the amount of ammunition fired and the cost per bullet.

Gratuitous picture of Margaret Lee

With the other long-term members of the gang, played by reliable hands like Don Backy and Peter Martell, equally professional but less extraordinary, the other main focus of attention is newcomer Tuccio, played by a fresh-faced Ray Lovelock.

A promising footballer who works in Cavallero's father's garage, Tuccio happens upon a stash of hidden guns and, having proven to Cavallero that he can be trusted, is invited to train with the gang and join them for their next job. (When he's learning to shoot, Cavellero still keeps track of the ammunition used.)

Let's go to work...

Finally, the day of the heist comes, along with the introduction of the various unfortunates whose lives are about to fatally intersect with the bandits. The job itself comes off fine, with the gang having earlier timed the traffic lights and noted that they would also have a clean getaway, but the police pursuit proves unexpectedly dogged. This causes Cavallero to start deliberately shooting at passing traffic and people in the hope of forcing the police to give up the chase.

It doesn't work...

Bandits in Milan has so many strong points, including quality performances; powerful, hard-hitting action sequences; believable characters; naturalistic dialogue (in which a number of distinctively Turinese idioms are used for extra veracity) and a somewhat open ending, that it is hard to actually find much to criticise.

One potential weakness is that Milian plays his role straight and as such is perhaps less interesting and engaging than in the likes of Almost Human and Brothers Till We Die where he is more over-the-top. Likewise, Lee's role amounts to only two or minutes screentime.

If Milian and Lee's fans may be disappointed, those of Volonte will be delighted. Compare his character and performance here to those in, say, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion or Io ho paura, and you cannot but be impressed with his ability to inhabit radically different roles – a self-satisfied, superior, fascistic police chief and an anxious, increasingly paranoid cop assigned as bodyguard to a judge investigating terrorism – and the sheer commitment he brought to them.

More mediation

Another thing I wasn't entirely sure about was the extra-diegetic music. It's fine in itself, but at times threatens to expose a split between the genre and documentary aspects of the film by providing additional commentary and emotional cues which I felt were somewhat superfluous given the power of the writing, performances and direction. This said, I must also having similar feelings towards a number of neo-realist films, so it may just be that I don't quite get this melodramatic aspect of wider Italian culture as it applies there and here. Or, rather, I 'get' it at an intellectual level, understanding how musical cues helped the Italian audience make sense of the film by providing emotional cues, but just cannot have this same response myself in the case of more realistic films.

Taken as a whole, however, Bandits in Milan deserves to be much better known and acknowledged as one of the great heist movies in the same breath as the likes of The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi, The Killing, Reservoir Dogs and Heat. It is that good.

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