Film Review: The Great Silence

One of the most stylish and powerful “spaghetti westerns” gets a stunning restoration—and a long-awaited U.S. premiere.
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The Great Silence (1968) has had a cult following but was never released theatrically in the U.S., primarily due to its violent excesses and lack of American star power. But connoisseurs of the subgenre of westerns made in Europe during the mid- and late 1960s should flock to this elegantly brutal entry. As with his original Django (1966), director Sergio Corbucci at times out-stylizes the more celebrated epics of Sergio Leone and, pointedly, twists a revenge melodrama into a searing tract about race and class.

In the story and screenplay by Corbucci, Vittoriano Petrilli, Mario Amendola, and Bruno Corbucci (Sergio’s brother), set in the Utah winter of 1898, a mute gunman, “Silence” (Jean-Louis Trintignant), allied with a group of outlaws, joins a young African-American widow, Pauline (Vonetta McGee), in the pursuit of the men who murdered her husband. Their main target is “Loco” (Klaus Kinski), a sociopathic bounty killer who works in tandem with crooked banker Henry Pollicut (Luigi Pistilli). Years earlier, it was Pollicut himself who cut the throat of “Silence” as a way to prevent the boy from testifying against him for the execution of his settler parents.

“Silence” and Pauline grow romantically close during their journey together but fail to see the traps set for them by Pollicut, “Loco” and their henchmen. A tragic, shocking ending results.

Corbucci’s bleak, controversial finale was yet another reason for the limited distribution of The Great Silence. The leftwing Corbucci was influenced in part by the assassinations of major political figures, particularly black activists, though he was forced by his producer to film an alternate “happy” ending for prints released in some regions. What is also politically notable is that Corbucci implicitly criticizes capitalist ideology through the dark portrait of banker Pollicut’s antipathy toward the poor; just as audaciously, the director is far less coy about the interracial romance between the protagonists than Hollywood films were at this time. (The lovemaking scene between Pauline and “Silence” is passionate and tender yet matter-of-fact.) In another positive surprise, Pauline is not the only strong female character in the story.

But the director’s real triumph here is aesthetic. The snowy landscapes—the Italian Dolemites sub for Utah’s mountain ranges—are shot in gorgeous widescreen by Silvano Ippolito, and the Film Movement Classics restoration is so crisp, the production looks like it was finished yesterday. Almost as unexpected as having a harsh winter setting for a western, Ennio Morricone’s score is subtler and more plaintive and intricate than his better-known works for Leone.

It is sometimes hard to judge the acting in films where all the dialogue is post-dubbed and/or the actors are “ghosted.” Yet a real poignancy emerges from the performances of French-born Trintignant, who never speaks anyway, making Clint Eastwood’s wordless Leone antiheros seem wooden by comparison, and the striking California-born newcomer McGee, who later became a “Blaxploitation” star. German import Kinski actually downplays his patented demented bad-guy persona, already familiar to spaghetti western fans by 1968, turning a potentially campy portrayal into something much more chilling. And from the postmodern “hippie” costuming by Enrico Job to the sharp editing by Amedeo Salfa, all the disparate elements coalesce perfectly.

Even 50 years later, The Great Silence stands majestically as both a blistering comment about its era and a creatively revisionist genre piece.

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