The prolific director of spaghetti westerns Sergio Corbucci may lack the legendary status of compatriot, contemporary, and friend Sergio Leone, but made at least a few films that could stand comparison to the likes of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Django is certainly one of them, but his masterpiece is the bleak, wintery, and politically subversive The Great Silence.
In the snowy frontiers of Utah, a band of outlaws wait for amnesty in order that they can return to the town of Snow Hill. As they wait fruitlessly, they’re being hunted down by bounty hunters led by the merciless Tigrero (Klaus Kinski). The mercenaries are on the payroll of the corrupt banker Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli), who has put the price on their heads, and who also gets a cut of the reward money. The only opposition is mute gunslinger Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), hired by the widow (Vonetta McGee) of one of the outlaws. Silence also kills for money, but his sympathies lie entirely with the outlaws and, though operating outside the law, follows a code of honour that Pollicut, Tigrero and company utterly lack.
Corbucci defines his film through Silence and Tigrero, both twisted versions of the other. Both are bounty hunters. Both kill for money. However, the overtly villainous Tigrero operates entirely within the law, aided and abetted by a grossly unfair system and the men who prosper within it. Silence is happy to skirt the law, but by being quick enough with his new-fangled semi-automatic Mauser, he can usually point to self-defence as a default position. Trintignant is as brooding and charismatic as a silent role requires an actor to be. Tigrero is loquacious and deceptively genial, with Kinski dialling down his trademark mania to chilling effect. His villainy is presented as entrepreneurial; the murderer as accountant. Supporting roles are but sketches, with Corbucci instead filling in atmospheric detail through gorgeous panoramas of the Italian Dolomites doubling for Utah, and a reliably excellent score from the ubiquitous Ennio Morricone, relishing the echoing vastness of the snowy wilderness as he would later in his career with The Thing and The Hateful Eight.
What sets The Great Silence apart is a refusal to adhere to the myths of progress and heroism that were still attached to the wider genre. Even among the revisionist European sensibilities of many spaghetti westerns it’s a distinctly bitter affair, so much so that it wasn’t distributed in the US until 2001, despite attempts to tack on a ‘happy’ ending. The film is cold down to the bones, visually, politically, and narratively. But it is also stylish, briskly paced, and frequently extremely entertaining. There are numerous scenes that feel oddly familiar until you realise that they’ve been filched almost wholesale by later filmmakers with magpie glints in their eyes and Hollywood heft in their wallets. It’s a gut punch for sure, but one whose subsequent reputation over the decades has maybe ossified into something intimidating, even forbidding.
For The Great Silence is frequently labelled a nihilistic film. It isn’t. It is cynical and despairing, but it’s about strongly-held beliefs being shattered by avarice and corruption, not the absence of those beliefs. For Corbucci, it was an impassioned howl in response to the assassination of Malcolm X and Che Guevera; ‘You could only take on the powerful and the wicked for a short time, it seemed, before they crushed you’. But rarely has so brutal an allegory been screened so deftly. The message never overpowers the film itself. Its politics are worn on its sleeve as thickly as the furs that adorn Silence and Tigrero, but the horsepower is all narrative.
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