I first saw Sacco and Vanzetti in college. At that time, I took this European dramatization of the infamous trial and execution of the two Italian-American anarchists with a big dose of salt. Its obvious manipulations made me want to fight back by insisting on a more objective view of both the events and the film. (The fact that the film provides an unconvincing depiction of places I know didn’t help my impression of it, however unfair that prejudice may have been.)
When I watched it again several years ago, my reaction was more negative. The over-heated view of the justice system and the division of American society into saintly victims and racist thugs seemed offensively reductive, the more so because of the heavy-handed, in-your-face film making. The hyperbole made an intelligent, reasoned response impossible.
Now, in the midst of a blatantly racist and xenophobic political atmosphere, the “overdrawn” villains in S&V seem all too believable. Which does not make the movie any better as a work of art or perceptive politically. It is still coarsely overdone, tendentious, lurid and masochistic. It is just that current events make the film’s cartoonish vision of American politics seem, if not subtle or insightful, revoltingly accurate as our political system becomes a parody of itself.
The one consistently rewarding feature is Gian Maria Volonte’s performance as Vanzetti. Volonte, probably best known to American audiences as the leading villains in the first two Eastwood/Leone westerns, gave all of his performances the unspoken, violent threat of a dormant volcano. His speech to the court before receiving his death sentence transcends the political clichés through sheer dint of moral outrage, transforming an ordinary man’s sense of injustice into a resoundingly epic heroism. It may be more Volonte than Vanzetti, but there is no denying his power to rivet the viewer with searing indignation.
There is also an original touch in the depiction of the liberal lawyer Thompson (William Prince) who moves from studied neutrality and detachment to utter disgust and rejection of the legal system he has hitherto trusted. It’s a clever contrivance to have a sympathetic character confront the inadequacies of his political beliefs, and, by extension, the supposed objectivity of his class-based perspective. It is the most powerful point in the film, albeit tinged with more than a touch of diagrammatic leftist wishful thinking.
Given when the film was made (1971), such Marxist postures feel about as insightful as dressing men in fedoras in a detective film. And indeed, most of the “politics” are standard New Left melodrama. Riccardo Cucciolla as Sacco is a victim, pure and simple, nothing more. Cyril Cusack as the prosecutor Katzmann leads the long line of actors playing to nasty reactionary type. The director, Giuliano Montaldo, manages to keep things moving in a loud, sloppy bustling kind of way, with effective results. It’s just a question of whether the methods enhance or cheapen a still loaded subject.