One of the dullest films I saw in 2013 was a film called Salvo directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. I looked it up before the screening, only to find that it received multiple awards at the Cannes film festival. This, I figured, was reason enough for me to choose it over the other five films playing simultaneously at CIFF 2013. However, this choice misfired terribly.
Salvo’s plot is wafer-thin. A gangster named Salvo and his boss go to another part of town to kill select people. Why they do it, what they have at stake, what this is in response to-- we are given none of these details. Instead, the film-maker chooses to focus on the more trivial details; like what time Salvo sets his alarm, what his servants think of him, whether his hostage girl is hungry and whether fish tastes better in a dog bowl.
This is the kind of film-making I absolutely loathe; even more than crass comedies and the empty-headed action entertainers. I acknowledge that the film’s not particularly ambitious and that it aspires to do very little, but if the film-makers are going to force the viewer to invest more attention than they usually can, they’re only promising the viewer a payoff that they go on to deny. Why they choose to emphasize on details that don’t deserve emphasis is simply beyond me. One theory would have it such that the film-makers don’t believe that realism can be preserved with time jumps. What they fail to realize is that the purpose of realism is to swiftly and subtly draw the viewer into the film’s world. For that, momentum needs to be built slowly and steadily. And by choosing to equate screen-time with real-time, whatever momentum is built only dissolves. The pay-off anticipated by the viewer feels denied, underwhelming him, thus failing in keeping him chained to his seat. I felt uninvited to Salvo’s world and could do little more than stare at images that failed to inspire any thought or evoke any emotion. All the visuals managed to do was mildly engage my senses.
This is one of the most exhausting films I’ve ever experienced. Not because it worked me but because I mostly make it a point to sit through a film. Salvo might be succeeding in its intentions but, really, who cares? It ends up exhausting the viewer in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons. And for me, as a critic, I felt like I was robbed off the opportunity to delve deep into the cinematic details that generally interest me- characters, themes, plot etc. These aspects exist in the most primitive states in Salvo.
That Salvo opened with intrigue only makes this all the more disappointing. A man is lying in bed, lost in thought. We get to, not just, see his place, but even feel the stillness of it- the sound of the creaky fan, the dim lighting, Salvo’s eyes lost in thought. It is evocative. Then, suddenly, you hear the alarm ringing. It interrupts Salvo’s train of thought. What could a cut like this say? That he probably has an eventful day ahead of him. While this sets the art-house tone and raises your expectations, Salvo never takes off. This is really a pity because I am a big fan of this style of film-making; the European-art-indie-film approach, if I had to give it a name. It is minimal, crisp, quiet, restrained and most importantly evocative. However, both film-makers at the helm fail to take advantage of it, inevitably raising the question- Do you really need 105 minutes and two film-makers to craft something like this? Salvo is hardly reaching for the stars, you see.
What follows next is a shootout that takes place in public, in broad daylight. Salvo and his boss come out on top but another man gets away. Salvo makes his next stop at a house inhabited by a blind girl. He sneaks in and awaits her brother, the man who got away. The girl soon realizes that she’s got company. And knowing that she can’t respond instantly, she holds back and settles for quietly alerting her brother over phone. He arrives in a matter of minutes. A moment like this deserves an escalation of tension, right up to the climax of this act. At this instant, we’re to be immersed in the moment so that we mirror her emotion. But we don’t await it as we should. We just sit, wait and watch because we have to. The film-makers continuously deny us our deserved payoff. This denial thwarts us out of the film’s world. We’re trifling bystanders with nothing at stake here.
*SPOILERS*So, yeah. Anyway, Salvo uses the girl to bait an unsuspecting rival gangster before gunning him down. Then, he kidnaps the girl and holds her hostage to protect her from his own boss who is under the impression that she’s dead. Another thing...how does she regain her vision?
The three principle characters embody the most classical archetypes- the damsel in distress, the stoic knight in shining armour and the big bad wolf. That is all there is to the film. Saleh Bakri has an enigmatic presence in the lead role, but the film-makers fail to capitalize on even that. The only reason an age-old premise like this could work is because you fear for the damsel’s life as you anticipate the big bad wolf, while rooting for the knight. But here, the big bad wolf is introduced barely fifteen minutes before the credits roll. And just when this possibility, of any sort of excitement, is introduced in this fare, you’re milked dry and eagerly anticipating the camera to back away, hinting at a closing shot.
If the Luduvico treatment ever comes to fruition, Salvo would be a primary candidate for a film screening. The film is hardly ambitious, aspires to do very little and could’ve been engaging even if not particularly interesting. I do believe the film-makers were right in preferring style over substance and mood over emotion. Nevertheless, their obsession with achieving realism made Salvo a gruelling experience that left me bruised and battered.