The common opinion on Michael Cimino’s career is that it was killed by the air of ego-driven fiasco that surrounded Heaven’s Gate. However, a look at his filmography shows he directed another four features films after a post–Heaven’s Gate lull. Those subsequent films reveal that the decline of his directing career was a gradual one that happened in stages. In retrospect, The Sicilian seems like the point of no return for Cimino, the moment where his tendency for the overblown moved too far from what Hollywood found bankable and what audiences found entertaining.
The Sicilian is adapted from a Mario Puzo novel: said book was connected to The Godfather by a framing device featuring Michael Corleone but that had to be dropped for the film version. Instead, this film focuses strictly on the rise and fall of real-life bandit Salvatore Giuliano (Christopher Lambert), a Sicilian who revolts against how the wealthy and authorities treat peasants in post-WWII Sicily. With his friend Pisciotta (John Turturro), Salvatore defies local mafia kingpin Don Masino (Joss Ackland) and steals from the rich to help the poor buy land. However, he soon discovers that the life of an outlaw is violent and dangerous — and the powers that be will do all they can stop his rise.
As the above synopsis indicates, The Sicilian reaches for an arc of operatic tragedy but instead winds up at a level of camp because its gestures are hollow. Despite a surface level of complexity, Steve Shagan’s script (penned with an uncredited assist from Gore Vidal) dutifully trudges through a number of rise-and-fall crime clichés that you’ll see coming from a mile away. The dialogue is also packed with lines that are clunky and pretentious all at once, with each key scene having at least one line that will leave the viewer’s jaw on the floor.
Cimino’s direction gives the film an appropriately epic look, with lots of sweeping camerawork from Alex Thomson and gorgeous Italian locations, but the results come off as overwrought instead of emotionally searing. Each key dramatic moment is suffocated by an overblown orchestral score by David Mansfield and the self-conscious artsiness of Cimino’s direction just underscores the shopworn nature of his narrative.
To make matters worse, Lambert is terribly miscast and gives a wooden performance that makes all the worship and fear he inspires in the other characters seem bizarre. Turturro and Ackland acquit themselves well but the fact that virtually every actor supposedly playing an Italian has a different accent gives the drama an unintended surreal edge. Other notable odd performances here include Terence Stamp as an Italian aristocrat with a posh English accent and Barbara Sukowa playing a maneating Duchess who frequently strips down to play an “oversexed rich woman” cliché.
In short, The Sicilian is the kind of bad movie that is hypnotic because it manages to merge gorgeous craftsmanship with shocking cluelessness about what makes a good crime drama. The push-pull nature of these elements are likely to make this film appealing to camp classic devotees.
Blu-Ray Notes: Cimino completists will be happy to know this title is now available as a blu-ray in the U.S. from Shout! Factory. The transfer is a dramatic improvement over previous U.S. home video versions, offering the full Cinemascope imagery with new levels of color and clarity. Fans will be happy to know this is the director’s cut and offers 31 minutes of footage cut from the U.S theatrical release: there are fluctuations in image quality that probably reflect the reinstatement of this footage but the transfer is mostly impressive for a non-special edition release. The original 2.0 stereo mix is presented in lossless form and sounds nice and clean. There are no extras.