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Spaghetti Test

Italian director’s wretched Western won’t stick, but you make the call

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As the awards season and the many retrospectives for 2018 films draw near, here’s one film and award that might’ve escaped your notice. It’s among the more unusual films and unsung awards this last year.

The movie is Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence, originally released in 1968 but seldom, if ever, seen in the United States on the big screen. More about the politics on that matter later.

Finally released this summer in a stunning restoration on both Blu-ray and DVD, The Great Silence won a special award for Best Rediscovery of 2018 from the Boston Society of Film Critics. Good for the Yankee Bluestockings as well as Film Movement, the company responsible for the new release. Interested viewers can see what’s been called the best spaghetti Western not made by Sergio Leone.

In a sense, however, Silence (and the entire spaghetti Western genre) really began four years earlier in 1964, with the release of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, the first of his eventual trilogy—unburdened by an excess of dialog—gunslingers starring the perfectly cast flinty-eyed Clint Eastwood, whose previous credits included the TV star Rowdy Yates. With the unexpected international success of Leone’s film, floodgates opened for other Italian directors to import American actors (to lend legitimacy to the Italian market) and crank out bullet-ridden, corpse-laden oaters.

Sergio Corbucci had already worked on a variety of other genre flicks, sometimes with friend and colleague Leone, before breaking into the newly popular mold. He had great success in 1966 with the release of Django (starring Franco Nero), Johnny Ringo & His Golden Pistol (Mark Damon) and Navajo Joe (staring the late Burt Reynolds).

Corbucci, Italy’s Kubrick, made his greatest contribution to the genre with Silence, possibly the most controversial of all spaghetti Westerns due to its nearly unrelenting bleakness. Set in the snow-covered wilderness of Utah (filmed in the Italian mountains), the film is a truly chilly Western, right up there with Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. And like Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Hateful was also directly influenced by Corbucci.

The scenes shot in the town of Snow Hill were actually filmed in various studios, the “snow” convincingly created by gallons upon gallons of shaving cream. The many mountain sequences, though, were the real thing and must have been arctic hell for actors, horses and crew.

The film’s stars are French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant and German thespian Klaus Kinski. Both were international stars, particularly Trintignant. associated with arthouse dramas like Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (’66), Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (’69), and Bertolucci’s The Conformist (’70). Kinski, one of the notorious wild men of film, had a major success with Werner Herzog in films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo.

Trintignant plays Silence, aka The Mute. As a child, he saw his mother raped and killed by a man who then slashed the boy’s throat, rendering him incapable of speech. He grew up to be a gunslinger, defending harried, starving outlaws from ruthless bounty hunters. Silence never draws first. Rather than kill his prey, he sometimes shoots off their thumbs, rendering the sorry villains unable to ever shoot a gun again. Pauline (Vonetta McGee), the widow of a man killed by the bountyhunters, falls for the strong Silent type.

The scumbags’ jefe is vile, vicious Loco (Kinski). The lone soul up against Loco and the rotten town council is good guy Sheriff Gideon Burnett (American B-actor Frank Wolff, whose career was boosted by this genre). Gideon and Silence join forces against the obvious insurmountable odds.

The set-up recalls every other Western cliché, spaghetti or otherwise, but what sets Silence apart is its sheer grimness. No happy ending here. It’s said Corbucci intended the massacre of the “good guys and gals” at the end to reflect the untimely, unnecessary ends of Che Guevara and Malcolm X.

International distributors were irate, so Corbucci had to shoot an alternate “happy” ending; it’s in many new video releases.

Beyond ridiculous, the alternate conclusion still failed to appease American studios, so Silence lapsed into legend for American audiences.

And it’s back—your big chance to see what miffed studio heads 51 years ago—plus you can hear the great Ennio Morricone’s Western score. You’ll see why The Great Silence earned its reputation.

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