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The Miracle of Salvo: Can You Still Believe?

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I adore fairy tales and have never really grown up from that joy I felt as a child, listening to my grandfather read me stories by the Brothers Grimm or watching the Disney videos that my parents put on for me, whenever they needed some time alone.

But these days I require a little more heft, turmoil and character development than Cinderella to make me believe. And that's where Fabio Grassadonia's and Antonio Piazza's touching drama Salvo seamlessly comes in.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word 'Salvo' as "a simultaneous discharge of two or more guns in military action or as a salute." In Sicily, where the film takes place, it's a nickname for those named Salvatore and in Italian the word means "safe, unharmed". The filmmakers clearly meant to include a bit of that, and perhaps none at all, in their title.

More importantly, Salvo is one of those films that stays with you long after viewing it, deep inside your heart, vivid in your mind. Its images haunting, the acting impeccable -- by the talented, spellbinding Sara Serraiocco as Rita and quite possibly the best actor in world cinema today Saleh Bakri, as Salvo. The plot, one of those beautiful cinematic premises that you simply have to throw yourself into wholeheartedly to fully enjoy the film. I did, and so I did. Salvo left me breathless.

And thinking.

Now, let me start from the beginning. For the first 22 minutes of Salvo, I chewed through my right pinky finger, the tension so palpable and feeling oh-so-real, thanks to the cinematography of Daniele Ciprì. Ciprì, along with being one of best DPs in contemporary Italian cinema, is also a writer and director and his 2012 film È Stato il Figlio (It Was the Son) I really loved at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last year. This year, the same festival also showcased Salvo.

Ciprì, this master director of photography, managed to bring me along for the ride, a dangerous, suspense-filled ride, shoulder to shoulder with the silent, brooding Salvo, the modern-day Samurai-slash-contract-killer and the sister of his latest victim, the blind, beautiful Rita. When Salvo walks into her space, a dark Palermo home shaded from the unbearable heat, Rita can sense him immediately but doesn't let on. She stops, turns off her radio, where the song Arriverà is playing. As an interesting aside, the song makes up nearly the entire soundtrack of the film. Then Rita walks over to the window as if to look out, comes back to her radio, and through this one tense sequence, the audience is hooked. It's a moment so terrifying, I could feel the little hairs on my arms stand on end.

Yet what happens next in the film is full of silent passion, twists worthy of a fairy tale -- sans the shoe and featuring an unlikely prince -- and even a miracle. A cinematic miracle, followed by others along the way that somehow become utterly believable, thanks to Bakri's performance. Convincing wouldn't even begin to express how he brings the character of Salvo to life.

The Palestinian Bakri was a courageous yet almost inevitable choice for the filmmakers who said about him "We discovered Saleh Bakri thanks to The Time That Remains, a film directed by Elia Suleiman, presented in Cannes in 2009. The character he plays in this film, like our Salvo, says very little, yet reveals a deep and tormented humanity." Along with Serraiocco, who also sells her Rita immediately as a character and a woman, beyond her handicap.

When I asked Bakri what it was like to play a Sicilian man he answered at first with a question "What is an Italian man or what is a Palestinian man?" Then continued, "I don't know, but I can say that Salvo for me is a lost human being who finds the way back to the essence of his humanity." Finally adding that "this journey of coming back is what really interested me in Salvo, since I believe that humans are born to be good and they are driven to be ignorant and evil along the way." A favorite moment with Salvo in a kitchen with a can of tuna is priceless and understated, but you'll have to watch the film for yourself to see what I mean.

Salvo as a film kicked off in high gear, winning in Cannes last year both the Grand Prix in the Critics' Week and the Visionary Award. The film was then released for a theatrical run in Italy, where critics called it anything from a "Splendid debut" to "one of the most interesting films of the year." Just last week it released in the U.K. where The Guardian hailed it as "A fascinating, stylised drama". And this weekend, on March 29th and 30th, Salvo comes to the U.S., part of the New Directors/New Films series, screening at both MoMA and Film Society of Lincoln Center in NYC -- hopefully heralding soon a theatrical run in major U.S. cities as well.

I'll finish with the words of filmmakers Grassadonia and Piazza, when they were asked what makes the miracle of Salvo possible:

In a world populated by souls chained to their daily non-existence, in a world which to a greater or lesser level of pretense wears the mask of death, in a world where a true encounter between two human beings is inconceivable, the miracle is nothing more than a simple meeting: the meeting between the two main characters which binds them together forever and allows the need for freedom and life to blossom within them.

For once, I would like to believe that a miracle can happen. And if you want to believe it too, I suggest watching Salvo in NYC.

Image courtesy of Film Movement, used with permission