On a certain level, you’ve almost got to feel sorry for Michael Cimino. Once one of the most acclaimed members of the movie brats 70s filmmaker generation, Cimino will now forever be known as the guy who ruined the party for everyone. His 1980 anti-Western epic Heaven’s Gate bankrupted United Artists and put an end to the director-driven Hollywood era. While the directorial indulgence on display in that film is undeniable, it’s actually filled with beautiful moments and shouldn’t be remembered as the horrendous pop culture punchline that it’s become.
Not only is Heaven Gate unfairly dismissed, but it’s tragic legacy led to Cimino’s two previous movies (Thunderbolt And Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter) being short changed in hindsight. Then there’s the director’s career after Heaven’s Gate, limited to four features over 26 years that were only ever works-for-hire. We’ll never know the filmmaker Cimino could have been because he was never given the freedom to properly pick his projects again. Still, they tend to play surprisingly well when viewed within their limitations, like his 1987 gangster epic The Sicilian, which makes it’s Blu-ray debut this week courtesy of the good folks at Shout Factory.
The entire project exists entirely due to demands of the marketplace rather than anyone’s artistic vision. Mario Puzo wrote the original novel in the 80s for a big fat fee as a loose follow up to The Godfather (you may have heard of it?). To avoid stepping into any unfortunate lawsuits, all minor references to the Corleone family were removed for Cimino’s film, even though the influence of Puzo’s previous novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary cinematic adaptation hang over almost every frame of The Sicilian. In fact, we can pretty well be certain that Cimino only got the gig after Coppola, Scorsese, and pretty well every other one of their contemporaries turned it down.
Christopher Lambert stars as a Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano. Together with his gang of bandits (including a young John Turturro), Giuliano was an Italian Robin Hood. He robbed from the rich to give to the poor, with the hopes of possibly leading a revolution to separate Sicily from Italian rule. As Giuliano grows from a humanistic outlaw into a political revolutionary, the guy obviously starts to ruffle feathers. His ego grows along with his ambitions and slowly the powers that be start to realize that murdering Giuliano would be a hell of a lot easier than negotiating with him.
One of the great secrets to the success of The Godfather was that it was never conceived of as the great cinema-defining masterpiece it became. Puzo conceived of the novel as a means to combine all of the most lurid rumors and legends that he’d heard about the mafia into a trashy bestseller. Coppola decided to treat that pulp as a tale of family and kings merely to retain his interest in material that didn’t initially spark his imagination. Somewhere along the way, alchemy occurred and pulp became art. The Sicilian was clearly written and filmed under the assumption everyone was delivering a work as deep and meaningful as The Godfather and they never quite pulled it off.
Though the script is a little too sanctimonious and self-important for it’s own good, the deepest mistakes occurred during casting. For reasons best known to himself, Cimino insisted that Christopher Lambert star, leading to a wooden central performance with an unfortunate French accent that’s always distracting. Granted, he looks the part and during silent scenes where the audience can project a performance onto Lambert’s blank face, it kind of works. Otherwise…yeesh. Likewise, the two female leads were clearly cast for their visual appeal above all else and they have a tendency to drag the movie to a halt whenever they open their mouths.
Now, despite those undeniable flaws, there are certainly reasons to watch The Sicilian. It’s far from a total failure (especially in the director’s cut, which at least makes sense). The mix of historical politics and mafia murders offers plenty of intriguing themes and unexpected plot twists. The film might not be a masterpiece, but it’s an intriguing spin on a well known genre. Plus the entire cast surrounding the limp leads is fantastic, with Turturro delivering a cold gangster so compelling you can’t help but wish that he was the lead along with some fantastic mobster heavy work from the likes of Joss Ackland and Terence Stamp.
Yet more than anything else, The Sicilian succeeds as a testament to Michael Cimino’s incredible craftsmanship. Granted his biggest budget outside of the 70s, Cimino delivers a series of sumptuous images of the Italian countryside, impressive crowd choreography, and some extraordinary bursts of violence. Whenever the film is told through set pieces, it moves and flows like visual poetry. No matter how many things might go wrong in any Michael Ciminio joint, the guy always knows exactly where to put the camera and The Sicilian is filled with extraordinary imagery thank ranks high in his career and in the gangster genre as a whole. It’s a shame that the script wasn’t a little tighter and that absolutely anyone else wasn’t hired for the lead role (cast Christopher Walken in a Deer Hunter reunion and I’d imagine The Sicilian is remembered as a cult classic), but what can you do? Sadly any Michael Cimino flick after 1980 is a collection of ‘what ifs.’ The Sicilian is arguably the most gorgeous film of his late career, even if the content of the remarkable imagery rarely matches the pretty surface.
Never exactly a beloved movie in North America, The Sicilian has always been difficult to track down in this part of the world and even if you could find it, you were stuck with a full frame DVD of the truncated-to-confusion theatrical cut (ew). Thankfully, Shout Factory have treated the film with more respect than some might think it deserves. We’re offered the full director’s cut, which actually makes sense and can be followed as a narrative despite Christopher Lambert’s best mumbling efforts. The transfer is gorgeous, with Michael Cimino and cinematographer Alex Thomson’s lush sweeping camerawork given new life in HD. The depth and detail is luscious, which is vital to appreciating the film given the vast cinemascope canvas painted by the filmmakers. It looks like an epic in every scene and it’s all too easy to get lost in the visuals. Admittedly some scenes seem to have come from lesser source material (which I’m assuming is the once-lost director’s cut footage), but overall the film has never looked this good or been available in a more complete form in North America and that’s damn good news.
The audio is also crisp and clear, but Shout didn’t bother with a 5.1 expansion, so you’re stuck with a stereo HD Master Audio track. It’s still wonderful within those limitations though, so there’s no cause to complain.
Sadly, Shout Factory didn’t round up any special features for this release. That’s a real bummer since a troubled production like The Sicilian would be perfect for the honest-to-the-point-of-hilarity approach to interviews and commentaries that Shout typically delivers. It feels like a missed opportunity for some fantastic stories. But at least Shout delivered a beautiful presentation of a film that’s never even been granted a widescreen release ’round these parts before. That’ll do just fine.