The basic facts in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti are simple:
Two Italian-born anarchists who had emigrated to the US, were arrested and charged with having committed murder during a robbery, tried, convicted and sentenced to death on dubious evidence. Despite appeals and various high profile figures of the time pleading for clemency, the sentences were eventually carried out, to become a cause celebre for progressive elements in the US.
What Giuliano Montaldo’s film does is explore the background, in terms of the authorities’ paranoia about revolutionary elements and (the US as) a divided country where the elite were afraid of losing their power and would do anything to keep it, in ways that undoubtedly resonated for 1970s audiences.
Thus, he open with black and white scenes of a raid on an immigrant community, which filone fans may find curiously reminiscent of the sepia-toned opening to The Beyond; repeatedly cuts in the image of an anarchist falling to his death whilst in police custody, apparently referencing Dario Fo’s contemporaneous Accidental Death of an Anarchist; and contrasts the certitude of various eye witness testimonies – yes, those are the men I saw – with the far more ambiguous ‘reality’ revealed in the pseudo-documentary reconstructions.
While the investigation of the investigation reveals the fabrication and disappearance of evidence, along with the essentially show trial nature of events, where the verdict had essentially been decided in advance, this same dietrology (i.e. what lies beneath?) perhaps also exposes the implicit problems here.
Specifically, what we have is a film which is radical in content, but not in form – here we may note the constructed nature of the flashback reconstructions, against the unquestioned reality of their earlier counterparts and the found newsreel images – and which, as such, was necessarily complicit with the status quo, at least according to some theoreticians and practitioners.
Or, if we deny that there is truth, that everything is just a more or less self-interested discourse, then don’t we thereby accept that the reactionaries and racists who condemned Sacco and Vanzetti to death have just as (in)valid a perspective as they did, with their compassionate desire to emancipate the mass of humanity?
That the filmmakers did not support such self-defeating positions is evident.
While Gian Maria Volonte, who plays Vanzetti, may have appeared in the Dziga Vertov collective’s Wind from the East, with its radical form and content, he also appeared in more conventional politically committed films like Sollima’s western Face to Face and Petri’s giallo Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion both before and afterwards.
(Would anyone have gone to see Wind from the East had it not also had Godard’s name connected to it, albeit ‘under erasure’? I think not.)
Ennio Morricone and Joan Baez’s music, with the clear subject position we are to take in relation to the ballad of the two men in Baez's lyrics and the decidedly conventional approach in Morricone's music, in comparison to the experimental work he was undertaking with the new improvisation group or on soundtracks like Cold Eyes of Fear (genre) and The Working Class Goes to Heaven (art, with Volonte again), engages rather than alienates us.
Above all, however, it is the way everything – writing, direction, performances, design etc. – come together to really draw us in to the story to make us feel the injustice, rather than that all there is is just us...
Highly recommended, unless you’re one of them, whichever they this refers to...