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CANNES — An aesthetically arresting hit man story that gets by more on its craftsmanship than on its minimalist, borderline ham-fisted narrative, Salvo nonetheless marks an impressive feature debut from Italian writing-directing duo Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. Clearly indebted to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samurai in both form and function, while revealing shreds of Gomorrah’s third-world despondency, this handsomely made redemption tale should see plenty of fest play, as well as niche art house pickups, following a competition bow in Cannes’ Critics’ Week.
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Practically wordless and entirely devoted to capturing the stoical point-of-view of its gun slinging protagonist, the film kicks off with a brief scene of the titular killer (Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, The Time That Remains) lying in wait before the day breaks, enveloped in the wheezing sounds of his broken air conditioner. But the merda quickly hits the fan when Salvo and his mob boss, Randisi (Mario Pupella), are ambushed by a pack of double-crossing gangsters, who the former easily disposes of before heading off to take out the man behind the whack.
When he arrives at the cluttered seaside apartment of his next victim, Salvo finds himself drawn to a beautiful blind girl, Rita (Sara Serraiocco), who he discovers in the basement, counting money and humming along to an Italian pop tune. After an excruciatingly protracted wait, the girl’s brother comes home and Salvo manages to do the deed, but winds up getting cold feet when it comes to doing away with Rita, who he kidnaps and locks in an abandoned mine somewhere outside Palermo.
From the opening shootout to the scene of Salvo stalking Rita around her house, Grassadonia and Piazza reveal a markedly assured directorial hand (or hands), capturing the action in an array of POV shots that are a cross between a first-person shooter game and the gritty realism of Matteo Gareone‘s Naples-set thriller. With ace DP Daniele Cipri (Vincere) behind the camera, and elaborate sound work from Guillaume Sciama (Amour) and Emmanuel Di Giunta, the film captivates through purely technical means, and can be incredibly intense at times, especially during Salvo and Rita’s haunting first encounter.
But things slow down once Salvo returns to his boarding house, where he sits alone in his room for hours, or otherwise silently intimidates the caretakers who bring him his paltry daily meal. The production design by Marco Dentici (another Marco Bellocchio regular), all floral wallpaper and cracked ceilings, brings to mind the dilapidated flat in the Melville film, while Bakri’s contained, laconic performance is pure Alain Delon, keeping us constantly guessing as to what Salvo’s next move will be.
That it involves a certain change of heart will perhaps comes as no surprise, but what’s definitely surprising is how things change for Rita—in a plot contrivance that, like Salvo’s cliché-ridden conversations with Randisi, feels more akin to a B-level mafia flick than to something this well made. Still, there’s no denying the sheer aesthetic talent on display here, and beyond all the shootouts and genre tropes, Salvo manages to distill an authentically unsettling atmosphere that speaks volumes about the state of modern-day Sicily.
Production companies: Cristaldi Pictures, Acaba Produzioni
Cast: Saleh Bakri, Sara Serraiocco, Luigi Lo Cascio, Mario Pupella
Directors, screenwriters: Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza
Producers: Massimo Cristaldi, Fabrizio Mosca
Director of photography: Daniele Cipri
Production designer: Marco Dentici
Editor: Desideria Rayner
Sales Agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 103 minutes
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