The Sicilian

The Sicilian is the kind of movie they just don’t make anymore: a big, dumb historical pageant with a mélange of international accents and an impenetrable plot. It’s well in the running for big-budget dog of the year.

It is adapted from a novel by Mario Puzo, who is of course closely associated with the success of The Godfather. Evidently someone thought the same magic might rub off here, perhaps because the Sicilian bloodline is similar.

Puzo’s story tells of a great Sicilian peasant leader who rose up in the years after World War II to lead a bandit uprising. According to The Sicilian, he stole from the rich, in order to give the money to the poor. In doing so he went against the total control of the Don, who eventually was able to destroy the upstart.

The movie is so bad we never get much sense of why any of these people are fighting, or what the possible benefits would be. Instead, the thing lurches sluggishly from conversation to conversation, broken up by regular bouts of blood-letting.

After the first few minutes, you realize the movie is going to be deadpan and dull. So there is consolation to be had from the lousy dialogue, which provides some inadvertent howlers. Much of it is the stilted dialogue that European people seem to speak only in historical movies, such as “You have said no to Don Mazzino. Now you will have to leave Sicily,” or “They say he calls himself the Lord of the Mountains.”

My favorite snippet (to be read with a fake Sicilian accent): “You may be a Sicilian duchess, but you are still an American woman, and a match for any Sicilian man. I am at your knees.” If the crawling pace of the film is any indication, the whole movie is at its knees.

Among the actors at a loss here are Joss Ackland, who plays the big-shot Don; Terence Stamp, who sneaks in the movie’s sole measure of wit as a prince; Richard Bauer, overacting enjoyably as a professor; and the excellent European actress Barbara Sukowa, wasted as that American duchess. And a dubbed duchess, at that.

Chrstopher Lambert, the French actor who played Tarzan in Greystoke, is the rebel leader. It is, to say the least, a thankless job, but it is possible to feel pity for Lambert.

It is not so easy to feel pity for Michael Cimino. The mercurial director of The Deer Hunter has had his disasters before; everyone remembers knockin’ on Heaven’s Gate. But at least Heaven’s Gate was the incomprehensible product of passion and vision. The Sicilian is schlock, decorated by pretty shots of a sunny landscape. Cimino should be embarrassed.

First published in The Herald, October 1987

I slammed the film, but this may not have been entirely at Cimino’s feet; his 150-minute cut was rejected. Actually, I’d watch that. Lambert is playing Salvatore Giuliano, whose name is also the title of a 1962 Francesco Rosi film, which you definitely should see. Puzo’s novel was adapted by Steve Shagan and, uncredited, Gore Vidal, who apparently sued for credit. John Turturro is in it.

2 Responses to The Sicilian

  1. Bill Treadway says:

    Cimino’s 146 minute directors cut is on YouTube in its proper aspect ratio.

    While the director’s cut is better than what was released in theaters, it’s still not a good movie. Part of the problem stems from the adaptation of the Puzo novel. The novel is an actual sequel to The Godfather, taking place during the period of Michael Corleone’s exile in Sicily. It was a well written and exciting book that fractured time, alternating Salvatore Giuliano’s backstory with a current story about Michael at the end of his exile as he’s preparing to head home to the United States.

    The film leaves out Michael, Clemenza and all references to The Godfather, reportedly due to copyright hassles with Paramount. So losing Michael throws the plot in disarray. What’s left was the Giuliano backstory, poorly distilled into a screenplay that doesn’t give any real insight as to why Giuliano was a big deal. At least the 1962 Francesco Rosi film does give that insight.

    The other problem is casting. One has to question the sanity of Cimino, insisting on casting a French actor as a Sicilian. Lambert’s poor performance sinks any chance this film ever had, even in the maimed theatrical cut. It was yet another sign that Cimino learned nothing from the Heaven’s Gate fiasco, which also cast a French actor in a role that was not well suited.

    The positives of the director’s cut- the editing is less choppy and the film flows better than the theatrical release.The camerawork comes off better too. Barbara Sukowa has more screen time, although she’s still dubbed- badly at that. However, she walks away with the picture just on her screen presence alone.

    But even those positives just can’t overcome the problems.

    • roberthorton says:

      Interesting. I ought to give that a look. And I agree, Lambert was a mystifying choice, except for his international bankability. But surely there were other actors who qualified on that score.

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