After a desultory first 24 hours, it took a speedy walk down the Croisette to Espace Miramar—home of Critics Week, the festival’s all-too-easily overlooked independent sidebar—to catch the festival’s first truly good film: Salvo, the debut crime drama from Sicilian filmmakers Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. A sharply chiseled intelligence is on display from the first, wordless scene, which shows hit man Salvo (Saleh Bakri) in bed as his air conditioner conks out during a brutal Palermo summer heat wave. The cutting is precise, rhythmic, furtive; there’s the suggestion of something imminent—perhaps the bad day that is to come as Salvo’s alarm clock rings, only to be followed by a power outage.
Immediately after making its mark, Grassadonia and Piazza’s film takes off running. Sooner than we can gauge, Salvo is suddenly on the job and in a world of hurt. All too aware that his car is being pursued, he and his gangster colleague get the jump on his pursuers, and the directorial duo stage a stunning shootout in which the wide-screen camera doggedly stays by Salvo’s side, jarring yet fluid, turbulent yet thoroughly in control. Salvo, it becomes abundantly clear, is a man who won’t give up, managing to track down the crime boss who put the hit on him.
This is mere prelude to what constitutes the film’s heart—a string of extended sequences, the first of which is so astonishingly elongated that it seems suspended in time. When Salvo enters the boss’s home to make the kill, he unexpectedly encounters the man’s blind sister, Rita (Sara Serraiocco). Grassadonia and Piazza have been fixated on Salvo’s point of view by this point, but something surprising happens: they transfer their visual obsession to Rita, who instinctively tries to steer clear of whatever this intruder has in store.
The filmmakers’ grasp of on- and off-screen space and sound is part of what makes Salvo an incisive piece of cinema and lends its distinct texture, and this quality is at work in two different dimensions. When Salvo attacks the boss, the camera remains trained on Rita, whose sense of hearing is heightened by her virtual lack of sight. Sound takes over, delivering the kind of vivid and violent pictures to the viewer’s mind that would have benefited Amat Escalante in the blunt and unimaginative torture sequence served up in his disappointing Cannes Competition drama, Heli. Later, sound again rules when Rita is held prisoner by Salvo, who turns out to have no clear idea what to do with her. (His own boss, a man of the old Sicilian school, simply wants her snuffed out.)
Off-screen space also works not just in any given moment of the movie’s most intense scenes, but across longer stretches of time. Salvo’s prisoner begins to see again; the confined Rita finds herself anew, almost reborn as a woman, and the two of them come to a well-earned rapprochement that far surpasses the cheesy norms of B crime movies. While this is going on, another drama—unseen, off screen—has been unfolding with the boss, who realizes that Salvo isn’t coming to work anymore. The dramatic shock that flows out of that story back onto the main on-screen drama may be the movie’s most sublime gambit, one that at first may even seem to be a mistake, or a misstep. Salvo embraces crime genre tropes and then stretches them into a new shape, so that old devices look and feel new. It reminds us that the confinement of genre, not unlike Rita’s own constrained circumstances, can have unexpectedly fresh results.