by Roderick Conway Morris

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By Roderick Conway Morris
ITALY 3 October 2003


Francesco Rosi's 1961 'Salvatore Giuliano,' inspired by the life and death of the eponymous Sicilian bandit, is regarded as one of the classics of 20th-century Italian cinema.

The worst crime attributed to Giuliano and his band was the indiscriminate firing into a crowd of men, women and children at Portella della Ginestra, near Palermo, which left 11 people dead and many more seriously wounded. The villagers had come together on May 1, 1947, to celebrate recent electoral victories by an alliance of left-wing parties. Like many criminals, Giuliano was a reactionary at heart, and supposedly put his services at the disposal of the local Mafia and landowners to remind the peasantry who the real bosses were.

But this massacre came at a highly significant juncture, during the months when the Communists were successfully excluded from participating in national government in both Italy and France, and the Truman Doctrine made explicit that continued aid depended on their permanent expulsion. The findings of the Italian inquiry into the killings were never published, and remain classified to this day. It has long been suspected that real responsibility for the outrage lay in the upper echelons of the state, and not necessarily rogue elements within it.

Giuliano conveniently never appeared in court, taking his secrets with him to the grave in 1950. He was putatively killed in a shootout with the carabinieri, an account later exposed as a total fabrication. The subsequent explanation was that his cousin and chief lieutenant, Gaspare Pisciotta, shot Giuliano dead while he slept, having made a deal with the police.

'Segreti di Stato' (Secret File) has its origins in research by the late sociologist, Danilo Dolci, whose political activism landed him for a spell during the 1950's in the same prison in Palermo as the remains of Giuliano's gang. Their version of events seriously contradicted the official line, stimulating Dolci to go on trying to uncover the truth when he was released. The filmmakers, too, have delved into the available documents, including those of the Parliamentary Antimafia Commission and relevant archives in Washington.

An ideal format for this story would have been a courtroom drama, but this being Italy and the cover-ups and timely silencing of witnesses so successful (Giuliano's executioner, Pisciotta, himself died in mysterious circumstances while in custody), virtually nothing actually came out in court. Thus, Paolo Benvenuti has structured his 'factional' revision of what really happened around the progress of a semi-fictional lawyer, determined to get to the bottom of the matter. The result is a well-made and absorbing narrative, which legitimately challenges the state's obsessive and unhealthy cult of secrecy, even about events long past.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024