Michael Cimino’s “The Sicilian” (1987)

After YEAR OF THE DRAGON’s (1985) modest success, director Michael Cimino again found himself as an employable filmmaker.  While it didn’t reach the heights that THE DEER HUNTER (1978) or even THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT(1974) did, Cimino could at least show that he was able to overcome the catastrophe that was HEAVEN’S GATE (1980).  However, that success was short-lived, as it further emboldened Cimino’s indulgent eccentricities and led him further down the path of obscurity.

Two years after YEAR OF THE DRAGON, Cimino re-teamed with his HEAVEN’S GATE producer, Joann Carelli, to make his fifth feature film– THE SICILIAN.  With a story based off a novel by Mario Puzo that was considered the true literary sequel to “The Godfather”, expectations for another cinematic masterpiece like Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 adaptation were understandably high.  The producers took a gamble by hiring Cimino, believing that he still was capable of delivering a film on par with THE DEER HUNTER.  To hedge their bets, they brought an uncredited Gore Vidal on as the screenwriter (final credit went to Steve Shagan).  Unfortunately, their faith was misplaced– the final result was an incoherent mess capped with a bizarre lead performance that continued Cimino’s road to ruin.

Puzo’s source novel was a much sought-after film property, as it fleshed out Michael Corleone’s exile in Sicily and his encounters with Salvatore Guiliano, a bandit turned folk hero.  Due to copyright issues, however, the cinematic adaptation had to sever any connection to THE GODFATHER whatsoever.  As a result, Vidal’s screenplay shifted the focus to Guiliano himself, depicting his rise and fall as a transformative figure in Sicilian history.

As filmed by Cimino, the story follows Guiliano (Christopher Lambert) and his loosely organized militia during the early 1950’s as they try to subvert the Italian government and established Sicily as an American state— weird, I know.  Like Robin Hood, Guiliano roams the countryside, stealing from wealthy property owners and giving back to the poor.  As his infamy spreads, his ego gets the best of him (something tells me Cimino didn’t realize the irony here).  This leads to the ruthless assassination of his own men, whom he suspects of betraying him.  His megalomania grows to a point where he believes himself to be more powerful than his financial benefactor, the Mafia Don Masino Croce (Joss Ackland).  Enraged by Guiliano’s hubris, the Don conspires with Pisciotta (John Turturro), Guilano’s cousin and closest friend, to put Guiliano down for good.

There is a great movie in this material, but it is not this film.  The story is hamstrung by a frankly bizarre performance by Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert.  He certainly looks the part as the courageous, dashing hero, but there’s a strange, dead intensity in his eyes that comes off as off-putting.  It’s like a vanity performance by someone who thinks they’re more charismatic and talented than they actually are.  His laughable delivery manifests in barking his lines with an off-kilter intensity that sounds border-line mentally challenged.  Even taking into account Cimino’s eccentric direction, Lambert still is the film’s weakest link.  There’s a reason he fell off the acting map after the mid-90’s.

The supporting cast fares much better.  The always-impeccable Terence Stamp plays Prince Borsa, a dandy aristocrat who finds himself the frequent target of Guiliano’s crusade.  He spends much of the film reclining in an opulent watchtower attached to his country estate, listening to old opera records.  Stamp depicts Borsa as a smart man whose distance from the hardscrabble peasants have made him out of touch and irrelevant.  It’s a reserved performance, to be sure, but Stamp never hits a wrong note.  As Don Masino Croce, Joss Ackland cultivates a strange father/son-friend/enemy relationship with Guiliano.  He thinks of Salvatore like a son, but the Mafia code of honor dictates a degree of respectful animosity when he breaks rank.  Croce ultimately comes off as a dignified, almost sympathetic antagonist.

John Turturro has perhaps the meatiest role in the film– that of Pisciotta, Guiliano’s cousin and best friend.  Initially presented as somewhat of a fool, he transforms into a hardened killer in the service of Guiliano’s mission.  However, he ends up being more of a Judas, becoming the instrument of Guiliano’s downfall when he realizes their fight can’t be won.  He receives his comeuppance in a very satisfying way that ties into Guiliano’s earlier methods of branding traitors.  These moments are where the influence of Puzo and THE GODFATHER are the most potent.

The supporting cast is rounded out by fine performances from Richard Bauer, a seasoned character actor, as Guiliano’s crippled godfather, Hector, and the fire-headed Giulia Boschi as Giovanna, Guiliano’s wife.  It’s a little perplexing when Cimino’s supporting players are well-cast, but his lead is completely wrong for the part.  However, we should come to expect odd casting choices from Cimino by now.

To capture Sicily’s expansive vistas, Cimino again works with cinematographer Alex Thomson.  I’m aware that the film was shot on 35mm on the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but I unfortunately was not able to see it in the way Cimino intended– the only available home video release of THE SICILIAN was released at the dawn of DVD, when lazy pan-and-scan presentations were the norm.  However, many of Cimino’s signature visual elements are present: deep focus, symmetrical frames, dramatic mountain expanses, and a masterful sense of epic scope achieved with dolly, crane, zoom, and moving POV/on-rails camerawork.  Indeed, THE SICILIAN marks somewhat of a return to form for Cimino’s grand, romantic style of filmmaking.

Early in the film, Cimino employs an interesting cutting technique that he never revisits again.  He symmetrically frames an image with the subject  in the center, as we’re tracking forward or away from him/her.  Then, he cuts right on the 180 degree line, flipping to front and back views in a disorienting jumble of visual information.  While the technique is a little strange, it seems to come from a true creative drive within Cimino– a vitality and willingness to experiment that hasn’t been since since THE DEER HUNTER.  It’s too bad that this courage doesn’t persist through the remainder, as it could have resulted in a very different, very dynamic experience.

Warm color tones complement a naturalistic lighting scheme, despite claims upon the film’s release that its visuals were smeared and muddy.  Ultimately, despite the high production value, the look of the film feels somewhat neutered.  It’s as if THE SICILIAN was a TV Movie Of The Week blessed with an unusually large budget.  Overwrought dialogue and a weird sense of dramaturgy contribute to a tone that’s off-balance and uneven.  As a result, the whole experience feels lackluster, strange, and decidedly un-cinematic.

David Mansfield once again provides music for the film, crafting a sweeping, romantic score that evokes Nino Rota’s iconic work for THE GODFATHER– which is appropriate given the source material.  Well-placed opera tracks also dot the soundscape, in addition to the unexpected inclusion of swing music.  One of my favorite musical moments was during the wedding scene, which takes place on top of a mountain.  Since they have no instruments or record players, Guiliano’s poor guerrillas loudly (and horribly) sing the swing music themselves.  It’s a sublime moment that wordlessly communicates the themes of the story and endears us to the characters.

It’s easy to see why Cimino was lured to the story of THE SICILIAN, besides the intention of making the next GODFATHER.   It’s an unconventionally personal film for Cimino, in which the action takes place in the land of his ancestors.  There is a clear love and exploration of his heritage at play here, which allows him to focus his preoccupation with cultural persecution on a subset of people he identifies with.  Ritualistic ceremonies like weddings and funerals are all important story events that allow Cimino to explore his own relationship with religion.

This being a Cimino film, there is a lot of detail to soak in.  One of the film’s strongest aspects is the production design, by recurring collaborator Wolf Kroeger.  Together, Kroeger and Cimino craft an authentic and immersive portrait of mid-twentieth century Sicily, a land of great natural beauty and history.  But even in a setting that’s half a world away from America, Cimino finds regular occurrence to reference the United States.  He even goes so far as to prominently highlight one of the more eccentric goals of Guiliano’s crusade, which was to make Sicily an American state.  Personally speaking, I found this to be a very strange, naive goal– even if it was true in history (Cimino has a habit of playing fast and loose with historical events to fit his purposes).  States like Alaska and Hawaii already are stretching the conceptual boundaries of American statehood by virtue of not being connected to the contiguous US, so the notion of establishing an Italian island halfway across the world as the 51st state is, frankly, nonsense.  However, it is an effective subplot if its aim is to communicate the insular, megalomaniac nature of the story’s protagonist.  If he thinks that’s a realistic goal, he’s crazy.

Upon its release, THE SICILIAN was essentially a flop.  It made less than half of its budget back, and was entangled in a nasty lawsuit that pitted Cimino against his producers in a battle over running time.  The production echoed that of HEAVEN’S GATE, with the film falling behind budget and schedule, and Cimino fighting his backers over final cut.  The finished film clocked in at just under two hours, while Cimino’s cut ran almost twenty minutes more.  However, the longer version of THE SICILIAN wasn’t fated to have the same critical re-appreciation that HEAVEN’S GATE was blessed with.  Even in the  director’s cut I screened, the final result is a jumbled, largely incoherent exercise in complacency.  There’s a few sparks of true inspiration and glimmers of greatness, but they are too few and far between to surmount the film’s profound flaws.  Barring an exhaustive restoration on par with HEAVEN’S GATE, I can’t imagine THE SICILIAN’s place in cinema garnering a better standing anytime soon.

THE SICILIAN is currently available on a standard definition DVD via MGM, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  Due to being dumped as a minor catalog release in the format’s early days, Cimino’s original widescreen framing and other details are lost to a claustrophobic pan-and-scan scan formatted for older television sets.