Il Grande silenzio

(The Great Silence, Italy - 1968)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli, Vonetta McGee
Genre: Western/Drama
Director: Sergio Corbucci
Screenplay: Sergio Corbucci, Bruno Corbucci, Mario Amendola, & Vittoriano Petrilli
Cinematography: Silvano Ippoliti
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Runtime: 105 minutes

The other Sergio didn’t direct with the flair or precision of Leone, but Corbucci may well have made the grimmest, least romanticized, and most relentlessly pessimistic film ever. There are many standard aspects to this sleazy and gory spaghetti western, but it’s also one of the more original westerns. Everything stems from Corbucci’s decision to shoot the film in the Italian Alps (supposedly Utah), the key to the films distinct look and feel. Icy settings yield icy characters, and there are only cold hearts here.

Silence is a mute killer of bounty hunters, excellent portrayed by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Trintignant was best known as the romantic lead from Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, but here he’s emotionally silent, a blank purposely unsympathetic character. Trintignant’s performance lies mostly in his eyes, alternately steely eyed when his enemies are around and mournful for his solitary existence where his throat was slit to prevent him from ratting on the bounty hunters who killed his father.

Klaus Kinski plays Loco, head of a group of bounty hunters who have taken over the town, killing whomever the banker and justice tell them to. It’s a lower key performance than usual from the famed madman, smirking and grinning with fiendish intensity. Kinski has a lot more charm than Silence, and he relies on his amoral smarts. To Corbucci any moral code is a handicap, so Loco holds the advantage because he lies to his victims so he can kill them in the manner that’s easiest and safest for him. Loco blows them away when they are helpless and even unarmed, while Silence only kills evil men who draw on him first.

The line between hero and villain is presented classically in that it’s always apparent Silence is supposed to be the “good guy”, yet the line between the two may never be less clearly defined with Corbucci subtly favoring Loco. Ultimately, Silence & Loco kill for money and “justice”. Loco is, of course, worse than Silence because he knows the people the law pays him to kill are mostly innocents, Mormons who have been run out of town and forced to live in the hills as bandits or men with attractive wives who wish to remain monogamous. He’s basically a sadistic money grubbing fascist, but both mutilate those they leave alive. Though Silence is a better person and kills people you could argue the world is better off without, he also kills for vengeance.

One thing I found annoying was how quickly and easily Loco decides to fight Silence after vowing to keep his cool. If Loco kept letting Silence bully him, Silence would really look like a bad guy, exposing his hypocritical they have to draw first brand of “honor”. Instead, Loco takes his gun belt off, but quickly starts a fistfight, making Silence look honorable for taking his licks rather than blowing him away as we know Loco would.

I guess if the film took that direction it really would have had distribution problems, as it’s already probably the least commercial spaghetti western, but I don’t think anyone who has seen the alternate happy ending on the DVD would choose it. Despite the success of Corbucci’s earlier western Django, the “US” setting, some interesting known actors, and the quality of the film, it took nearly 30 years to get a US release. It was probably considered too depressing and nihilistic, though a black heroine (Vonetta McGee) and interracial love scene with a bit of nudity wasn’t exactly helping its cause initially.

Corbucci was willing to break new ground and wasn’t just a Leone clown. One big difference is the cinematography. Silvanno Ippoliti utilizes narrow framing to create an oppressive cramped atmosphere. Though Ennio Morricone is the requisite composer, his work is also lower key. There are no stirring notes here; it’s a spare haunting melancholic work that’s more a collection of sound effects and brief themes.

Certainly Corbucci’s film features no heroes or larger than life archetypes. Everyone has their courageous and cowardly moments, usually depending on who is pointing the gun. This is most true of the honest new sheriff Burnett (Frank Wolff), who values the law but not above his own life.

The Great Silence is a patient film that tries its best to tell a story. The details are often sketchy, and the dubbing is disconcerting as even Kinski sounds like he’s supposed to be a Southerner. It’s not a perfect film, whatever that is, and won’t provide you with an uplifting evening. However, if you’ve worn out your copy of The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly or are tired of the American westerns with their unrealistically saintly heroes having a showdown with the incarnation of evil in Monument Valley, The Great Silence will broaden your horizons.




* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *