A stoic tough guy being confronted by his own maltreated conscience is hardly a novelty in cinema. When the convention is adopted, there is always the hope that it with the intention to approach the subject from some fresh angle, or provide a new kind of insight into age-old roles. In Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s debut feature as directors, the ingredients are all there for something with original flavour but, after an impeccable opening, Salvo (2013) lapses into familiar territory. It’s technically excellent throughout, but the style and strong performances aren’t enough to entirely compensate for a distinct lack of narrative purpose.
Saleh Bakri plays the titular character, an effective bodyguard and hitman for the mob in the searing heat of Palermo. His prowess is placed front and centre with a breathless bullet-strewn opening that provides as kinetic an action sequence as you’re likely to see in what is otherwise art house fare. With the camera hovering at his shoulder like a shoot ’em up, Salvo turns the tables on some rival gangsters that try to ambush him, dispatching all but one before procuring the name of the man who ordered the kill. Salvo kills his adversary, but finds himself unable to do the same for the man’s blind sister, Rita (Sara Serraiocco) whose presence at the house makes her a witness.
Whether it’s beguilement, conscience or sheer pity that stays his hand, the previously merciless killer begins some inner journey and Rita hostage rather than murdering her. It’s the sequence in the house with Salvo and Rita that provides the film with its stunning highlight; a showcase of technique and tension in which the young woman slowly becomes aware that there is someone else silently stalking the building. It’s a disorientating change of pace after the explosive gunfight and acts as the catalyst for some form of ecstatic transformation in Rita. Serraiocco’s performance during the scene is excellent and at its culmination Daniele Ciprì’s camera shifts to her point of view where she – and we – begins (perhaps for the first time) to see shapes.
The sensory is where Salvo is at its strongest with the direction and cinematography employed both to play with what is, and what is not, seen whilst complementing some superb sound design. Through visual and aural cues, the audience experiences the world as Rita whilst continuing to observe it as the laconic lead. Sadly, whilst the film shows some real style in its technique, it ultimately lacks the meat on its bones to truly excel. Once Rita’s life has been spared, Grassadonia and Piazza’s script doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself and meanders before a typical climactic showdown. As such, Salvo ends up feeling like a very bright start for its creators but never quite finds a narrative or thematic drive to match its artistic verve.