REVIEW: DVD Release: The Great Silence

Film: The Great Silence
Release date: 23rd August 2004
Certificate: 12
Running time: 105 mins
Director: Sergio Corbucci
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli, Vonetta McGee
Genre: Drama/Western
Studio: Eureka
Format: DVD
Country: Italy/France

Originally released in 1968, Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio) is widely considered the greatest spaghetti western not made by Sergio Leone.

A mute gunslinger known only as Silence arrives in Snow Hill, Utah Territory, during the Great Blizzard of 1899 to find many of its citizens driven either by enforced privation or religious persecution to the hills. There, they are forced to eke out a bandit-like existence, preyed on by a gang of ruthless bounty hunters in league with the corrupt justice of the peace and town banker Pollicot.

When the husband of the townswoman, Pauline, falls prey to the unscrupulous and sadistic bounty hunter Tigrero, she hires Silence to avenge her husband’s death.

A series of violent events and betrayals leads to a climatic confrontation between the two men, with the lives of the outlaws in the balance…

The great silence of the title refers not only to the film’s mute hero and the desolate snowy landscape of the Utah Mountains, but more pertinently to the inevitable silence of death that enshrouds The Great Silence. It is the attention to this theme and the sombre fatalistic mood of this most death-haunted of films that gives The Great Silence an almost existentialist air, filled with associative images of crows murdering over graves and horses collapsing in the snow.

At times, the film attains the calm restfulness Anouilh found in tragedy. The straightforward chronological plot (with just one brief flashback) adds to the film’s tragic air, a funeral march towards its unhappy resolution. There are no drawn out gunfights or tense stand-offs, save towards the end, and even this plays out more with the inevitability of a preordained execution.

Though rarely deviating from its downbeat tone, The Great Silence is saved from becoming an exercise in overwhelming bleakness through Corbucci’s masterful artistic direction in what is often a strikingly beautiful film. The typical rough-edged style of Corbucci’s early films reaches its zenith here, juxtaposing elegant widescreen compositions with crude zooms and shaky handheld shots to create an atmosphere more akin to cinema verité. The sombre photography and utilising of narrow framing often creates an oppressive cramped atmosphere while the widescreen shots seem to dwarf the characters in an inhospitable and indifferent environment. In keeping with the overall tone of the film, Ennio Morricone provides a considerably lower-key and melancholic soundtrack than usual, that is nevertheless one of the great Il Maestro scores.

Most of all, the film is carried by the extraordinary performances of its two stars, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski. The French art house icon Trintignant may have been an unusual choice to head the cast of a spaghetti western, but he brings to the role an enigmatic quality far removed from a Nero or Eastwood. Deprived of speaking lines, the power of his performance instead resides in eyes that seem to express less the pain of a haunted past than that of a limited future. It is as though the preternatural prescience of the typical spaghetti western hero has been replaced by Silence’s acute awareness of his own mortality, the sad haunted eyes that seem to foresee the death that awaits him just as surely as it has his victims. It makes for a far more fragile, more human hero than we are used to.

In fact, it is his enemy Tigrero, played by Kinski, who seems more possessed of that preternatural instinct, allowing him to always stay one step ahead of his foes and within the boundaries of the law. The dubbed English version gives Kinski’s character the name Loco, but this seems entirely inappropriate to a character who, while clearly deriving pleasure from his bloody work, is marked more by a cold calculated logic and pragmatism (for example, justifying his murderous actions by pointing out that the law gives him the option - and it is less costly to bring in a corpse over a live prisoner). Kinski gives a performance every bit as compelling as Trintignant’s, and all the more effective for the unusual restraint shown by the infamously volatile actor.

The spaghetti western genre is often understood as a reaction to the myths presented by the typical American westerns. The Great Silence goes further in subverting even the conventions of the spaghetti western. Corbucci’s film differs not only in its snowy setting, but through presenting a number of features that gives The Great Silence a startling originality. Perhaps reacting to the uncritical depiction of the bounty hunter in Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More, Corbucci presents the ‘outlaws’ as good, while the bounty hunters are the villains. Other innovative features include Silence’s favouring of the Mauser Broomhandle over the more familiar Colt Peacemaker; the casting of the African-American McGee as leading lady; and even the closest the film has to comic relief, in the character of the Sherrif, does not escape the violence of the story. Most pertinent of all is the film’s ending, as nihilistic and pessimistic as any, and one that will stay with you for some time.

Dedicating the film to Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, and Jesus Christ, the film has very definite political undercurrents. The actions of the state and its laws seem concerned only with the protection of property and the rich, only paying attention to the poor and needy once privation has driven them to act outside of the law. The familiar Corbucci trope of hand mutilation is present, linking Silence to Jesus and Che Guevara (Jesus was nailed to the cross through his hands; the hands of the dead Che Guevara were sent to Fidel Castro) to suggest the impossibility of revolution through the actions of one solitary individual. Though linked to the overall tone and themes of the film, such political references are never made explicit, allowing the film to attain the status of true art rather than political diatribe. A number of Corbucci’s subsequent films would go some to way seeking a solution to the theme of the impossibility of revolution suggested in The Great Silence, and are undoubtedly lesser artistic achievements because of it.

Regardless of your feelings about the spaghetti western genre, The Great Silence is an essential piece of cinema. A haunting meditation on death, almost despairing in its indictment of injustice, it has genuine claim to the status of greatest spaghetti western ever made. GJK

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