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Bandits of Orgosolo

by Glenn Erickson Jun 22, 2024

This in-the-wilds thriller about Sardinian shepherds that become outlaws is an almost perfect movie experience, and truer to Italian neorealist theory than the accepted classics. Director Vittorio De Seta filmed on location with almost no crew, using actual shepherds for actors — and comes back with a masterpiece hailed by film festivals as the best debut feature of its year. Everybody liked it, especially the Italian Left — it demonstrates how a backward system of laws forces ordinary men into criminality.


Bandits of Orgosolo
Blu-ray
Radiance
1961 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 95 min. / Banditi a Orgosolo / Street Date June 25, 2024 / Available from Diabolik / 27.99 ; Available from Amazon / 26.29
Starring: Michele Cossu, Peppeddu Cuccu, Vittorina Pisano, Gian Maria Volonté (voice).
Assistant director and set designer: Vera Gherarducci
Set decoration: Elio Balletti
Costume Design: Marilù Carteny
Film Editor: Joland Benvenuti
Original Music: Valentino Bucchi
Written by Vera Gherarducci, Vittorio De Seta
Cinematography, Produced and Directed by
Vittorio De Seta

We’re hungry for the classic vintage gangster and ‘Banditi’ films listed in the Hardy/Overlook Encyclopedia of Gangster Films … so few have seen release in the U.S.. They range from crime melodramas to social critques, mafia exposés and daring political protests. But then there is this small-scale, true-to-life ethnographic take on ‘banditi’ criminality.

Italy’s prestigious Titanus company distributed Bandits of Orgosolo (Banditi a Orgosolo), but it was produced, directed and co-photographed by an independently wealthy maker of documentaries, Vittorio De Seta. That’s why the main titles contain notices of its film festival wins, including the prize for Best Debut Filmmaker at Venice. Glowing reviews followed, and De Seta’s name became associated with other Italo directors making semi-documentary dramas in realistic surroundings, like Ermanno Olmi ( Il posto), and for some films, Pier Paolo Pasoline ( Mamma Roma).

In his video essay, Ehsan Khoshbakht likens Banditi a Orgosolo to De Sica’s  Bicycle Thieves. The Cesare Zavattini- written Thieves shows a working man so disheartened by the injustice of losing his livelihood, that he attempts to become a criminal, just like the man who victimized him. Banditi closes the circle, avoiding the sentimentality of the earlier ‘classic.’ Caught in a closed system of assumed guilt, De Seta’s unlucky protagonist never has a choice. It’s either become a criminal, or go to prison and let his mother starve in the street. The cold survival logic can’t afford a ‘moral’ decision. Forget our American notion of the Romantic criminal, Bonnie & Clydes yearning to be free, etc. — this is real-world subsistence reality.

De Seta’s movie never for a moment feels like a political tract. The first thing we notice is the beauty of its B&W cinematography, filmed in the hills and villages of Sardinia. The visuals are immaculate, and beautifully lit — expressing the rough hills but without a ‘grab shots on the run’ docu look. The Sicilian-born De Seta had a title and was independently wealthy. He had just made two short documentaries among the shepherds of Orgosolo, and had their complete cooperation. His actors and helpers were shepherds; his leads Michele Cossu and Peppeddu Cuccu were praised as being better than professional actors. The men on screen were essentially playing themselves; Cossu is said to have had experience with the trouble dramatized in the movie.

We soon understand why the back hills of Sardinia were considered savage and lawless. Brothers Michele and Peppeddu (they use their same first names) have a small flock with which they support their elderly mother back in town. The sheep are their only way of making a living. But everything falls apart when three bandits invade their little camp for a couple of days, hiding pigs they’ve stolen. They’re armed with machine guns; Michele can do nothing. When the Carabinieri police come, the bandits slip away. Michele says nothing to the Captain, not even when the pigs are discovered, so it is assumed that he’s a bandit as well.

 

Rural Sardinians are living in a different century.

Why doesn’t Michele cooperate with the cops?  A short burst of voiceover up explains it. The only meaningful social cohesion that exists is the bond of Family.  Even neighbors keep their distance, and everything else is the enemy, and not to be trusted. There’s nothing to be gained by engaging with the Captain … explaining the pigs means being detained by the Carabinieri, which means losing the flock, which means losing everything. Michele and Peppeddu instead flee, taking the little flock with them.

A major social disconnect is in force. Every shepherd is an isolated unit competing with other shepherd families. They can’t self-police or trust each other. Trying to enforce the Law and getting no cooperation, the Carabinieri consider them all to be liars and criminals. We soon realize that the three bandits who stole the pigs, and who later kill a Carabinieri, were likely shepherds just like Michele, who lost their flock one way or another. Families must be fed and the government provides nothing. One does what one has to do.

Michele knows the mountains better than anyone; with cunning and ingenuity he stays one step ahead of the Carabinieri patrols. Young Peppeddu looks like a kid but is just as decisive. Left on his own, he quite brilliantly takes the initiative, slipping away with the flock by removing all of their bells.

But how long can they evade the law?  The flight across the dry mountaintop puts their flock at risk — there’s not enough water or food, and the animals get sick if they’re driven too hard. A relative in town sends his daughter Mintona (Vittorina Pisano, another non-actor recruited from town) up the hill with a mule, enabling Michele to send back a bales of wool, and cheese that he makes himself in a pot, in the wild.

We see just enough of the village life to realize that the women mostly live and work alone while the men are away. There’s a hint of attraction between Mintona and the brothers. De Seta pulls off some fine scenes in the village, where young Peppeddu must sneak about avoiding the armed police. He dare not show his face at a family party, but climbs some stairs to peek at the dancing.    The angle justifies De Seta’s ‘expressive’ floor-level view of the dancers’ feet.

De Seta was apparently able to film on location for months, which accounts for a production polish that never has the ‘make-do’ appearance in an American low-budget picture, whether by Roger Corman or  Stanley Kubrick. The camerawork is precise and flexible, tracking running figures well in telephoto and finding angles that convince us that we’re really on the move across a wild landscape. One glorious shot shows the brothers rushing their flock across a grass field while heavy clouds move overhead — the darker shadows come and go in waves. We also get no sense of the camera being nailed to a tripod. Several trucking shots are so well integrated that we forget to note that De Seta is moving his camera. Did his tiny crew lay track?  Did they run the camera down wires, or what?

We’re told that the audio was post-dubbed, and partly re-written because the final voices speak straighter Italian instead of a thick Sardinian accent / argot. Even with the post-dubbing, Michele and Peppeddu’s performances are nuanced and natural — De Seta managed to keep them ‘inside’ characters close to their own experience. With its unspoken message that mis-applied law forces good men to become criminals, Banditi surely appealed to the committed Left in Italy. This perhaps partly explains why Michele speaks with the unmistakable voice of soon-to-be star and activist Gian Maria Volonté.

 


 

Radiance’s Blu-ray of Bandits of Orgosolo is pristine in every respect. The movie was completely restored in 2023 and scanned in 4K ‘from the original camera negative by The Film Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna.’ It is formatted in the flat Academy ratio, and looks correct. The excellent soundtrack makes fine use of natural sound and a sparse but very effective music score by Valentino Bucchi. Those sheep bells and the bird noises Peppeddu uses to signal Michele become very important. We remain outside that dance party in town, but it feels real … just a few feet away, at the top of those stone steps.

De Seta builds his world in enough detail that we believe every bit of what we see. Every animal counts. When a sheep breaks its leg, Michele and Peppeddu make a splint for it so it can hobble about and keep eating grass. When on the run, the brothers must haul important satchels with them, carrying a few tools and an iron pot in which to make cheese.

Radiance’s producer Francesco Simeoni again zeroes in on extras that deliver just what we need to know. Filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht gives an excellent 11 minute examination of the relatively unknown movie, which was shown briefly in the U.S. in 1964 and perhaps never again afterwards. Adding even more to our understanding is a talk by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, who in half an hour sketches a fine image of the production from the filming forward. Then a recent film school graduate with still photo experience, Tovoli signed on as a jack-of-all-trades for what he thought would be a documentary. He instead ended up shooting the film with De Seta after the hired cinematographer was let go. Tovoli was only credited as camera operator; he later filmed Antonioni’s  The Passenger and Argento’s  Suspiria.

The original trailer, also in perfect condition, sells the movie with solid review blurbs. Helping seal the deal is a 24 page illustrated insert pamphlet with an excellent essay by Roberto Curti.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Bandits of Orgosolo
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplement Interviews:
With cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (2024, 28 mins)
With curator and filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht (2024, 11 mins)
Trailer
Illustrated booklet with an essay by Roberto Curti.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 20, 2024
(7146band)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Trevor

Another fabulous nugget from the Savant. This has been on my want list since it was announced. If you’ve never seen it, it’s available on Prime although I assume it’s an old print & of course no extras. I’ll watch it tomorrow!

Trevor

Everything the Savant described & more. Highly recommended.

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