In some ways this is a very different kind of film from those I usually discuss here.
It’s squarely an art house and auteur film, made in the numerically minority but critically dominant neo-realist style, rather than being a popular film.
In other ways there are remarkable similarities.
For it’s also a somewhat forgotten film, whose auteur, Vittorio de Seta, would seem to have been dealt a cruel blow by fate through the similarity of his name to that of the better known Vittorio de Sica and the emergence of his more traditionally neo-realist film at precisely the same point in time as directors like Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Francesco Rosi were moving beyond it.
The irony is compounded by the fact that de Seta’s film at times feels much like a cross between de Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves, Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano and Rosi’s mentor Luchino Visconti’s La Terra trema – i.e. two acknowledged neo-realist classics and a classic of the post neo-realist cinema.
Bicycle Thieves contains a similar story, with an incident taken from life, featuring a decent, ordinary man who suffers a misfortune that, because of social injustice, leads to tragedy.
But De Sica’s film is urban and modern, in sharp contrast to the traditional Sardinia of De Seta’s, where class consciousness, at least in narrow Marxist terms of bourgeoisie and proletariat if not in broader Hegelian ones of master and servant, is absent.
De Sica’s film also presents a father / son dynamic, which De Seta’s reconfigures as between older and younger brothers, closer in age and likely experience but with similar dynamics of misunderstanding and incomprehension.
Rosi’s film presents another tale of banditry set on another marginal island, Sicily. But Salvatore Giuliano was a personality whose story, by the time of Rosi’s curious quasi-documentary reconstruction – curious for its attention to detail and the structuring absence of Giuliano himself, almost always represented through others’ testimony and projections, like a Charles Foster Kane – was hoped to have become history through the forward march of progressive politics and policies.
De Seta’s film is set in present-day Sardinia, where nothing has really changed, with a typical protagonist who is almost always present and, even when not, remains the centre of attention on account of being equally wanted by the authorities.
Unlike Giuliano, who had an wider ideology, Banditi’s Michele Cossu is guilty of nothing but being in the wrong place at the wrong time with a wrong understanding of the world.
Brought up to understand that one does not get involved in others affairs, he has no choice (i.e. in terms of anthropological rather than existential freedom) but to let some fugitives stay in his hut overnight. Similarly when the Carabinieri arrive, asking questions, he had no choice but to deny that he has seen anyone, despite material evidence to the contrary. And thus, when the Carabinieri and the bandits exchange fire, resulting in the death of one of the former and knowing full well that he will be taken as an accomplice in the crime, that he has no choice but to flee with his flock of sheep – the flock which, purchased on credit, offer his only hope of improving his family’s position and escaping his father’s fate of tending to the padrone’s animals rather than his own.
It’s in comparison with La Terra trema that Banditi a Orgosolo’s weaknesses, such as they are, come to light. While both films have naturalistic performances from non-professional actors – Michele Cossu and his brother play Michele Cossu and his brother – and present plenty of enthnographic details, such as the puttees worn by the shepherds here, Banditi has two aspects which I felt detracted.
The first, albeit one common to almost all neo-realist films, is the use of non-diegetic music that seems, to me, to cut against the realist ideal even if it enhances the melodramatic impact. (In the neo-realist’s defence, we can also not that the use of post-synchronised sound had always given Italian cinema a greater camera mobility than its rivals.)
The second is that everyone seemed to speak in a comparatively standard Italian, in contrast to the Sicilian dialect employed by the fishermen in La Terra trema, which famously had to be subtitled in order to be made comprehensible to non-Sicilians.
Maybe this reflects the changing reality represented by the two films, that the Sicilian and Sardinian islanders were increasingly being brought into wider Italian society.
But the opening narration in de Seta’s film, which states the only aspect of the modern world the shepherd’s were familiar with was the gun, would seem to contradict this.
Maybe it thus represents a rare concession to the audience, that our understanding of these people and their situation would be enhanced by dubbing into a more standard Italian, so that attention would not be distracted – at least for the domestic audience, the ones with the potential to make change – by the subtitling.
If it’s a case of ethics over aesthetics, its thus understandable and not sufficient to distract from De Seta’s truly extraordinary achievements here.