"Saleh Bakri is superb in the central role, at first chilling, then lurching between brutality and incongruous tenderness."

If you think of films about Mafia hitmen, you probably think first of violence. Salvo opens brutally, but then there's nothing for a long while. You may think of sharp suits. Salvo's clothes are old and covered in dirt. You may think of snappy dialogue. Salvo has almost none. In style it's much closer to a western. The long shots, the silences, the abrupt shifts between light and dark. The eyes alone telling us all we need to know about its haunted protagonist and the young woman who will change everything.

She is Rita, the young, partially sighted sister of a man he murders 20 minutes in. Sara Serraiocco spent the best part of two months in a blindfold to prepare for the role, but her disability, for all the impact is has on Salvo, betokens only a small part of her character. She didn't see what happened of course, though she heard it; she's under no illusions. But Salvo, used to killing men who want to kill him, can't bring himself to kill her. As he can't let her go either, he keeps her. It's the beginning of a seismic shift in his understanding of his own identity. As she fights, as she despairs, as she demands to know, "What do you want from me?", Salvo is forced into an intimacy he has clearly avoided for years, made aware of someone else's humanity. Even without the gangsters now on his tail, this would place him on dangerous ground.

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Saleh Bakri is superb in the central role, at first chilling, then lurching between brutality and incongruous tenderness. Serraiocco delivers raw terror that is difficult to watch but goes on to demonstrate impressive range as the balance of power between the two shifts back and forth. Though some will dismiss it as spurious Stockholm Syndrome fantasy, the emerging bond between the two is intriguing and feels real. Grassadonia and Piazza succeed in presenting us with a convincing drama about people, not just a strong pitch peopled by cyphers.

The film looks beautiful. As if reflecting its heroine's different perspective, cinematographer Daniele Ciprì keeps the lighting low - all the shutters are closed to keep out the Palermo heat - and concentrates on curious notes of colour, like a bowl of peaches in a blue room. There's dust everywhere, drifting through shafts of light, occluding surfaces. Rita's arms are mottled with scars and bruises. Salvo, for all his stubborn distance, is gradually broken down physically, visually, as well as psychologically. The film is heavy on atmosphere and will draw you in before you realise its power.

Loosely based on the short film Rita, in which a blind girl adopts a sighted boy who breaks into her house, this is impressively nuanced, mature cinema from two directors with little feature film experience behind them. Its questions about fate and free will are not new but its delivery is distinctive, the result ambiguous but affecting.

Reviewed on: 10 Feb 2014
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Life changes for a professional assassin because of a witness.
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Director: Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza

Writer: Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza

Starring: Saleh Bakri, Sara Serraiocco, Luigi Lo Cascio, Redouane Behache

Year: 2013

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: Italy, France

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