Interview: Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza
In the Italian thriller Salvo, the hit man of the title (Saleh Bakri) forges an unlikely connection with Rita (Sara Serraiocco), the blind sister of the man he is hired to kill. Two extended set pieces define the film: their initial circling encounter in the family’s house, and an abandoned mine where the pair must hide out afterward. FILM COMMENT spoke about the movie in depth with the directors, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, shortly before its screening in New Directors / New Films this past spring. Salvo is currently screening in an exclusive theatrical run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
<p>There’s a sumptuous quality to your film, and a formalist quality too. Sometimes the plot falls away and the film becomes about vision and the play of light, the layered use of light, as in the 20-minute sequence in Rita’s house. In almost every shot there’s a sharp differentiation between background and foreground space, through lighting and focus, and the cinematography is reminiscent of approaches more common to black-and-white film than color.
Fabio Grassadonia: What you’re saying was at the core of our idea from the beginning. Because it was our first experience as writer-directors, we wanted to tell our story, a story deeply connected to us. We thought it was time to go back to Sicily, where we both come from. So we thought about a story that starts like an action or mafia movie. There is a Mafioso, a hit man who has to kill someone for some reason, and we let the audience believe they are inside a typical Sicilian story about the Mafia. But then something impossible happens in the meeting between these two human beings and the characters and the audience fall into another kind of story, the story we were really interested in: the story of a possibility of change. Because this is a story about the meeting between two dead souls, and the most impossible of possibilities arises from this meeting. The sparkle of a new life comes from this meeting. They start to learn how to protect this possibility of changing, of looking for another kind of life, from the world they are surrounded by.
Antonio Piazza: Even in working with the actors our approach was different. We were talking about the plot and the characters’ psychology, but the rehearsals, for example, were a kind of dance. The very first rehearsals we had with the two main actors, they pretended to be wild animals trapped in the same cage, which was the room. This approach continued during the shoot, so the sequence in the house was like a piece of choreography. Our very first idea of this project was this hit man in front of a blind girl, and something extraordinary happening in this violent context. The idea was to work with their bodies, to stay with them, with as little dialogue as possible, to the point where we’re taking the risk of losing the audience. Even the work we did with the plot, the first draft had a lot more—we took away as much as possible.
The acting style in the film is not naturalistic, it’s artificial. In that first scene in Salvo’s room, it’s as if all the objects around him are keeping quiet, and then you hold on the clock right as it turns to 5:30. You get the sense that all of these minute movements, how somebody positions their body, are of great importance. Could you talk about choreographing the camerawork so that it responded to and heightened the actors’ physicality?
FG: At the core of the story are the idea and the theme of blindness. First of all, we had to define the point of view of this hit man and this girl, in order to catch the essence of their souls. In the beginning of the film we have this hit man, who is nothing more than a killing machine, and we put the camera on his back. We stay close to him and from time to time we catch only his eyes. But his eyes are not the eyes of a human being, they are the eyes of a predator looking for his target, to kill, to achieve what he needs to achieve in the moment. Also, it was very important in that first scene you were talking about to present him like a soul already in trouble, in crisis, trapped in a prison, in a cell. Even before the clock starts to sound, he’s already awake, he can’t sleep, and he’s an object trapped among all these other objects. He’s a dead soul; there is no life there.
Then this killing machine enters into Rita’s house. In that moment Rita feels someone, something, and we build her own point of view as a blind girl into the story. It was very important to build a sensorial experience for the audience, and we decided to put the camera in front of her face, very close so you can really read and see all the emotion. If you want to understand what is going on around her, you have to listen because all the things happening around her are out of frame. When we built this strange slow dance between the two of them inside the house, we did it in this way, playing with his point of view and with hers.
Then in the moment when they meet and Salvo must kill her, something impossible happens [when she suddenly gains sight]. He can’t kill anymore, and we start to build only one point of view. Because they are connected together they have to find a way to accept each other. For her, this gift means first of all a destruction: the way she used to experience the world collapses in the moment when her sight comes back. But it’s also a terrible moment for Salvo because he sees, for the first time, a human being in front of him, not a target to be killed. And through her, he is seeing himself for the first time. Through this process the two points of view become one, and through this new point of view we build their new story.
During that sequence in the house, you can feel their two points of view coming together, almost merging, glancing off each other and then finally locking in. I can’t remember their exact gestures but I do remember the frightened look in her eyes, and her movement out of darkness into light, or out of light into darkness. Can you talk about how you balanced the choreography of this as an action sequence, with having the film enter fully into the characters’ subjectivity?
AP: We started with the idea of not seeing his face at the beginning. If you remember, we only show details of his body, like in that first scene, and then after that only his eyes. It’s almost like a video game, following him from the back while he’s shooting. Basically, at the beginning Salvo is just a gaze looking for a target. Then we accompany him into Rita’s house and something is already changing from the very first meeting with Rita, the first time he sees her down in the basement [before the meeting a few minutes later when her sight is restored]. Somehow she sees him, even though she’s still blind, and this poses a question to him—it’s as if he’s meeting blindness. It’s a house of light and darkness and our work with the director of photography was all about that, using chiaroscuro and this idea of always moving from dark to light and then back into the dark.
This “house of light and darkness” seems to be a part of the characters themselves and, as you were talking about souls earlier, you could say the house is a reflection of their souls, moving through them as they move through it. The complexity of the lighting makes it feel like the shadows have volume and mass.
AP: For this part of the film we were especially thinking about the old noir films, American and French, where the use of light is expressionistic, emphasizing the difference between light and dark. Our cinematic approach was to make use of genre, even when the story is going into a more intimate direction. Later in the film, at the abandoned mine, it’s like a spaghetti Western style.
FG: Regarding the scene in house, every time they cross each other, either in a conscious or unconscious way, there is a moment of light. Then they meet but still have to build this new possibility, and they’re forced and imprisoned in a closed environment, like the abandoned mine.
The shot of Salvo riding the elevator by himself (to the underground hideout where he meets with his boss) reminds me of an optical illusion. It’s similar to Rita’s “blind visions.” Could you talk about your use of visual abstraction?
AP: All of the film is built like this, on very simple and almost abstract shots. With that elevator shot we wanted to move away from strict realism and try to go to another kind of land. The character of Salvo isn’t like a real Sicilian killer, he’s elaborated through our imagination, our dreams, made more abstract. It’s a thin line between reality and dream, and the shots were conceived to follow along this thin line.
The movie has a lot of religious imagery, or suggestions of religious imagery. It’s hard to put your finger on, like that fine line between dream and reality. Were these religious associations on your mind from the beginning?
AP: We were aware there was a possible religious meaning to Rita regaining her sight, which is a kind of miracle, and we didn’t want to avoid it. For example, they never really question why and how it happened, they never go to a church. It’s different from other films where something big like this occurs. But at the same time, building the story in an archetypical way, it’s basically a brutal sentimental education between the two of them. Salvo is not the kind of person who says “I love you.” The only things he can do for her is bring her water and food because he doesn’t know how to care about someone else. So some of the scenes might have a religious background to them, which doesn’t mean you have to be a believer, but it is in the background, a possibility.
FG: In a way Salvo is the story of a man who sacrifices himself to save another human life, so those religious readings are possible. There is enough space to question this film from many different angles.
What’s most important in his sacrifice is the tenderness that develops between them, a tenderness that is conveyed primarily through touch. The worldview of the film strongly conveys how cataclysmic or life-giving a single touch can be.
AP: At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about. New possibilities can be created just by touching another human being.
FG: This can happen in the meeting of two human beings, during a particular moment of grace. There is still the possibility to deal with our souls in a different way. Coming from the kind of society we come from, it’s very difficult for us to believe that there is still the possibility for change. In this wasteland, two dead souls making contact, touching, meeting, can start to live again. And as you said, there is tenderness—there’s no hugging or kissing or love in the night—there’s just one dinner, the two of them, very tender, surrounded by enemies. But they can enjoy that moment, they really are together. Love is always connected with moral choices, and she knows that she has to wait for him to die before she can finally go to her new life.
What Salvo and Rita realize that no one else in the movie does is the necessity for other people and the commitments that that requires of you. Could you talk about the two lead actors? Taken together, they’re like two parts of an equation, especially in their gestures and movements.
AP: We had two separate approaches because they have very different backgrounds. Saleh Bakri is a professional actor; he’s been in many movies. He shared his understanding of the character with us, and it was a more traditional construction of his character, in a good way. He was bringing his own suffering—for example his own suffering relating to where he comes from, because he’s a Palestinian with Israeli nationality and he’s very conflicted about where he’s from. He was putting all of this into the character of Salvo, which is completely different, in this other reality of Sicily.
We met Sara Serraiocco thanks to a long casting process, and she was not a professional actress then. We didn’t want to work with a famous Italian actress because we really wanted you to believe she was blind and not someone very famous pretending to be blind. This was her first role ever, and she did some tough preparation, interacting with blind people and even living with blind people in Rome and Palermo. And we kept them [Bakri and Serraiocco] separated from each other for as long as possible, because we wanted to keep the energy of their really meeting for the first time. The preparation they did share beforehand was never rehearsing scenes of the script together but, as I said, pretending to be animals trapped in the same cage. All of their scenes were shot chronologically, so for the two of them this journey was of getting to know each other for real.
Their body language toward one another changes significantly throughout the film: her fear of him goes away, and they begin to acclimate to each other. Because there is almost no dialogue, their body language makes up nearly the entirety of the characters.
AP: With Saleh it was really about being a machine, at least in the beginning. He’s very, very sure of himself. With Sara we did a lot of hard work to create that body language by working with blind people. She spent days living in the same little house in a village near Palermo with a blind girl who is also named Rita. And then we made a short film in Palermo, in which the main character is a 10-year-old blind girl, and Sara observed her closely. This girl has a very strong, peculiar face and expressions—it’s almost as if you can read the world in her face.