THE GREAT SILENCE (IL GRANDE SILENZIO) (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)
209 West Houston St.
March 30 – April 10
After half a century, Sergio Corbucci’s underseen masterpiece, The Great Silence, is finally being released in the United States, in a gorgeous fiftieth anniversary restoration screening at Film Forum. Corbucci’s revisionist spaghetti Western was shot by Silvano Ippoliti in the Dolomites in northeastern Italy, where luxurious white snow (actually shaving cream) goes on forever until it is stained with so much blood. French star Jean-Louis Trintignant plays a variation of the quiet hero who lets his guns do his talking; Trintignant, who did not speak English, is Silence, who, as a young boy, witnessed the merciless murder of his parents by bounty killers and is rendered mute with a knife to prevent his testimony. Years later, now an adult, Silence, with his unusual Mauser C96, roams the land in search of bounty killers, getting them to draw first so he can then fire back in self-defense, shooting off their thumbs so they can never use a gun again. It’s 1898, and hard times have come to Snow Hill, leading many average citizens to break laws just to put food on the table. Greedy banker Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli) puts a price on their heads, wanted dead or alive, attracting various bounty killers, including the notorious Loco (German star Klaus Kinski), aka Tigrero, who never brings his targets in breathing, no matter how minor their crimes. Relatively hapless sheriff Gideon Burnett (Frank Wolff) is caught somewhere in the middle, as it’s Loco who is on the right side of the law and Silence who is walking a fine line about what’s legal. After Loco kills James Middleton, his widow, Pauline (Vonetta McGee), hires Silence to gain revenge, setting the stage for one of the most brutal endings in the history of cinema.
The pairing of Trintignant, who had gained international fame in Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, and Kinski, who had made such previous Westerns as Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General and Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, has a dark magic, particularly since their characters are not clear representations of good vs. evil. Each one uses their eyes to intense dramatic effect, with Trintignant particularly effective since he doesn’t speak a word — just wait till you see him scream. In her film debut, McGee (Blacula, Repo Man) brings a stark sensitivity to Pauline; her interracial love scene was shocking for the genre, especially with Corbucci (Django, Navajo Joe) handling it in such a gentle way. Meanwhile, composer Ennio Morricone (Once Upon a Time in the West; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) delivers one of his most emotional and wide-ranging scores. Fifty years on, The Great Silence can still be read as a parable attacking rampant injustice in society while also subverting the Western genre itself, a dark and bleak tale about the hopelessness of life. (If the ending is too much for you, you can watch the absurdly ridiculous alternate happy ending made for some foreign markets here.)