While it’s not Sergio Corbucci’s best-known spaghetti western (that honour goes to Django) there are many who believe that his 1968 movie The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio) is his greatest. Unfortunately those people are wrong.
The movie concerns bounty hunters at the close of the 19th century. A large group of criminals is holed up in mountainous snowbound terrain waiting for a government amnesty. Before the amnesty arrives though they have to survive the attentions of a gang of bounty hunters. The most notorious of these is a man known variously as Loco or Tigrero (the subtitles on the Region 4 DVD insist that he’s called Tigrero). Either way he’s played by Klaus Kinski. He’s the movie’s chief bad guy (although his occupation happens to be hunting down criminals).
The bandits have a champion however, a mysterious stranger known as Silenzio or Silence. We later find out that his nickname comes from the fact that he’s mute as the result of having his vocal cords destroyed by wicked bounty hunters when he was a child. The bounty hunters had killed his father. Silenzio is now a crusader for the rights of criminals sought by bounty hunters. He pursues his crusade by taunting them into drawing first and then shooting them with his nifty machine pistol. He’s the hero of the movie (although his occupation happens to be defending criminals).
When a black woman’s husband, a thief, is shot by Tigrero she employs Silenzio to avenge him. She and Silenzio fall in love.
While this is happening a new idealistic sheriff has arrived in the town of Snow Hill. He doesn’t like bounty hunters and he wants to see Tigrero behind bars. The fact that Tigrero is actually pursuing a perfectly legal if rather unpleasant occupation doesn’t trouble the sheriff too much. He’s sympathetic to the rights of the poor and downtrodden, and he clearly considers that criminals fall within that category.
There’s also a wicked capitalist oppressor, Pollicut, who is in league with the bounty hunters.
With both Silenzio and the sheriff against him you might think that Tigrero would be in trouble, but in fact he’s a whole lot smarter than either of his antagonists.
The Great Silence has strong claims to being the most miserable spaghetti western ever made. Its famously downbeat ending is part of the film’s problem, but not for the reason you might suppose. The fact that it’s downbeat isn’t the problem but the fact that it lacks any dramatic punch certainly is. The whole plot just doesn’t quite develop the necessary dramatic tension. Silenzio is just too inept, too helpless. You really have to buy the naïve political message if you’re going to enjoy this movie.
Jean-Lois Trintignant plays Silenzio. His performance is presumably intended to be moody and intense. It doesn’t quite come off. As a deadly killer he is less than entirely convincing.
The movie’s saving grace is Klaus Kinski. He’s magnificent. He’s gloriously wicked, a man who really loves his job, especially the part that involves shooting people.
Technically the movie is an odd mix of brilliance and incompetence. There’s some stunning location photography, and the mountains and the remorseless snow create a superb atmosphere. But then there are scenes where Corbucci couldn’t even be bothered to make sure the camera is in focus.
This is a movie that the film school crowd will adore. It has the kind of heavy-handed political message that they love so much. And it has those moments of technical incompetence that will have them talking excitedly about cinéma vérité.
A film worth seeing for Kinski’s terrific performance, and for some impressive visuals.
The Region 4 DVD from Force Video is in Italian with English sub-titles.