In my piece on biopics, I listed examples of biographical films that steer away from convention. Francesco Rosi’s films about legendary mafioso figures (particularly Lucky Luciano and Salvatore Giuliano), with their oblique approach to the biography genre, easily belong on that list, so I put right their omission presently.
Rosi’s first mature masterpiece was Salvatore Giuliano (1962). With this film, his own style, appropriating neo-realism for his own purposes, fully came together. From the title, you’d be forgiven for expecting a biopic focusing on the notorious Sicilian bandit Giuliano, gunned down by police in 1950, leaving behind a disputed and divisive legacy. But in fact, the surface expectations of a biopic are misleading. We barely glimpse the face of the actor playing Giuliano more than a couple of times. Rosi cares not about Giuliano’s personal life events or individual traits, but about a whole society (in this case, Sicily), a whole system, and the tangled web of endemic deceit and corruption that straddles across every section of its processes. That is the true subject of his biopics.
Salvatore Giuliano offered us a panorama, taking in citizens, police and judiciaries from all angles and all walks of life, all of them in some way affected by the mystery of Giuliano’s actions and death. Amongst the corrupt shady dealings casting uncertainty over facts, one theme soon asserts itself: Italy’s North-South divide. Rosi himself hailed from the South (from Naples) and this was a recurring motif in his work, connected as it was to a political dimension: the post-war period of Italy’s USA-sponsored ‘economic miracle’ was the time of the stretching rich-poor divide widening across the affluent North and the increasingly left-behind South.
These concerns are all there again in Rosi’s Lucky Luciano (1973), another nominal biopic of a notorious crime figure in Italian history. Born in Sicily, but rising to the top of the mob in New York City by eliminating all his rivals in the 1920s and 1930s, Luciano stands infamous among the history of mobsters. He oversaw the modernisation of the mafia from a small-time family-run affair to a corporate syndicate of global crime with significant political and economic clout. But Rosi once again subverts the personal aspects of the biopic or gangster genre, by de-centering the narrative away from Luciano as the sole point of focus, and conducting nothing less than a filmic investigation, complete with extensive research, into the wide-ranging implications and reverberations of Luciano’s crime empire.
This time, the central figure is played by an acting heavyweight, Gian Maria Volonté, unrecognisably subdued in his performance, so we at least see more of him than we did Giuliano. But nonetheless he is at the edges of his own biopic, not much more than a cipher, his face enigmatically blank and rarely showing more expression than a faintly ominous smile behind its image-conscious sheen. This elusiveness works in making him distant, not just from the narrative spotlight, but from the federal agents who struggle to pin any charge that sticks on him, Luciano by now a master at camouflaging his nefarious activities, from murder to global narcotics trade, so that nothing can be traced back to him.
Most the film takes place post-1946, after Luciano was acquitted from a 30-year jail sentence, thanks to a secret deal with the U.S. government, and extradited to Italy. Rosi’s prime interest is history, the history of post-war Italy, the era of the economic miracle, of Fiat and booming industrialisation, and particularly how it, American involvement, and big-time crime like Luciano’s, are all inextricably connected. During the war, the U.S. authorities sought mafia help from Luciano among others to protect the docks of New York City, which were under the tight control of crime bosses, in fear of sabotage or attacks. They also extended their ties with the mafia by paying them to ensure smooth embarkation for their military forces in Sicily, and this alliance extended into the post-war period. As a reward, Luciano’s prison sentence was cut drastically short by Governor Thomas Dewey. Politics, business, the army, Rosi asserts, are all far more closely entangled with the criminal underworld than they would want us to know.
This history, of organised crime and corporate capitalism developing in tandem, is also the subject of Coppola’s first two Godfather films of course, which were released on either side of Lucky Luciano, in 1972 and 1974 (Coppola, much like Scorsese, was surely at that time under the influence of Rosi’s work). But whereas Coppola and Puzo afford the Corleones moments of pathos, letting us empathise and identify with even the most morally corrupt of them at various times, Rosi is extremely careful to avoid this.
He’s fully aware of Luciano’s mythologised status as a mastermind of crime. There’s a moment when U.S. sailors enthusiastically ask him for autographs, and Rosi even incorporates the strange episode of a Hollywood movie mogul’s failed attempt at turning Luciano’s life into a motion picture. But this is the antithesis of the individualised biopic, as Rosi deliberately gives zero psychological depth to Luciano, strips him of any glamour or romantic allure, and makes sure our thoughts never wander into considering how it might feel being in his shoes. Luciano is just a cog in the system, and whether it’s him, Giuliano, Al Capone or any other ambitious power-hungry mob boss, makes no difference to the big picture. Rosi lays out the patterns, the relations, the operations, between U.S. and Italian politicians, a U.S. Army colonel who fraternises with Luciano, business associates, other crime heads, lawmen, UN delegates, the pathetic informer (played by Rod Steiger, who’d already starred in Rosi’s Hands Over the City) who feels Lucky’s grip tightening around him…
These characters and many more go into making this political exposé of the tentacles of Power. Every scene feels like a piece of the jigsaw, and it is up to us to put it together. The remarkable thing about Rosi’s films is that for all their intellectual rigour, they are not theses delivering out rigid truths to the audience. There’s a palpable sense of mystery and unknowability, perfectly insinuated by Piero Piccioni’s tempo-switching opening and closing theme that manages to be both menacing and funky. Rosi poses many questions but acknowledges not having all the answers. We are supposed to be active in finding our own answers, encouraged to carry out our own research. There’s no doubt his biopic treatment was quite unlike any other, and sadly it’s hard imagining a producer green-lighting a movie project like this today.