Sacco and Vanzetti (1971)

Sometimes all it takes is an image. A man falling from a window, played on out in slow motion. His impact with the surface below is never shown, but the psychological impact of the image shakes you to the core. This images plays a pivotal role in Sacco and Vanzetti. It directly follows a black and white opening scene, shot in a lively cinema verite fashion that depicts the busting up and shutting subversive press offices. What follows is this haunting image of Andrea Salcedo – a Galleanist printer. His body drops slowly, like a piece of debris caught in the wind. The film begins.

In essence, Sacco and Vanzetti is a courtroom drama. Through flashbacks, we are told the story of how these two Italian shoemakers and possible anarchists came to be on trial for the killing of a payroll officer in South Braintree, Massachutes. It becomes quickly apparent that guilty or not a travesty of injustice is being played out as the bigoted court system looks determined to railroad the two Italian immigrants.

Just as it was in history, the two are found guilty and sentenced to death. Then, something peculiar occurs in the narrative structure of the film. The movie seemingly jumps genres and suddenly becomes a forward moving whodunit with a group of concerned lawmakers and citizens setting out to find the real murderers. Of course, time runs out, Sacco and Vanzetti are put to death, and an air of mystery lingers over their trial and their lives.

Sacco and Vanzetti is and Italian production, with obvious sympathizes towards the titular figures. Each character is given ample room, perhaps too much, to express their personal dislike for America’s capitalist attitude. Director Giuliano Montaldo allows Vanzetti to transform the witness stand into a grandstand as he espouses the pros of a socialist society. Seeing as how their fates are certain, both men haunted by that image of their colleague dropping from many flights up, one can understand why they would you the courtroom as a stage to espouse their believes. What’s harm can come of it?

If you are a left leaning liberal its hard not to agree with these two men and their idealistic views. Certainly, to a right wing conservative or a free market economist, Sacco and Vanzetti’s opinions are pure vitriol. Still, this is not a film that is going to bring together the left and the right. It is clearly targeted to those on the left; those who already sympathize with Sacco and Vanzetti. For the politically disengage or ignorant, the film plays out more like an dated Law & Order, ripped from yesterday’s headlines.

Perhaps, comparing this film to Law & Order is a bit too simple. There is clearly more at stake with this movie and a great attention to detail has been placed on the period’s costumes and production design.  If the courtroom scenes are stagy, the  re-enactments and opening sequence makes the former forgivable. Personally, I cannot forgive the Joan Baez theme song that opens the movie. A small hit, this sing-songy protest about the injustice of Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial is too folksie for a film who’s events predate the 70’s by a few decades. It feels schmaltzy and in-congruent. Whereas, the music score by Ennio Morricone makes the film worth seeking out, if only for simple aural pleasure.


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