Friday, February 15, 2013

The Voiceless and the Man who Exploits Them

". . . the Spaghetti Western ideal [is] that life is cheap but death is expensive--death has a price." - Quentin Tarantino

Il grande silenzio* is a 1968 Spaghetti Western whose title can be translated as The Great Silence or The Big Silence, the latter reminding one of The Big Sleep, which of course referred to death. Il grande silenzio is also about death and about how humanity has built a system to create and profit from death. It's a beautiful, brutal, and very effective film.

Tarantino listed it as a major influence in making Django Unchained, but although the bounty hunting business pays well in Il grande silenzio, it's not the path to freedom and revenge for the heroes that is in Tarantino's film.

In this case, it's the tool of the oppressor, embodied by Klaus Kinski as Loco, a sadistic man who spends the film murdering and torturing people but never breaking the law. Because the people he torments have prices on their heads.

The hero of the film, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is simply called Silence, partly because he never speaks, partly because of the fact that he brings death--he hunts bounty hunters for pay as an agent of vengeance. The film is set in Utah during the blizzard of 1899, which has forced many people to become outlaws to survive, which means decent folk now have a need for someone like Silence to protect them from someone like Loco.

As usual with Spaghetti Westerns, the wardrobe is much better than American westerns. Both Trintignant and Kinski wear scarves that look sort of like medieval coifs under their hats, adding to the impression that both are arbiters of morality of one kind or another. From his name, one might assume Silence is a manifestation of death, an impression broken somewhat when he falls from his horse at the beginning of the film. Later, we see that the reason he doesn't speak is that his throat was cut by a bounty hunter when he was a child--he's actually mute, and so we see he's not the bringer of silence but the victim of it.

It's a nice metaphor for the inability of those who are victims of the system Loco exploits to make any kind of meaningful impact upon it. Silence's technique for disposing of bounty hunters is pathetically indirect--although he's a supernaturally fast draw, like most Spaghetti Western heroes, he has to goad his target into drawing first in order to stay within the bounds of the law.

There's a sweet, effective romance subplot between Silence and the widow of one of Loco's victims, played by the beautiful Vonetta McGee, which further humanises Silence. There's a sheriff played by Frank Wolff who's horrified when Loco gleefully piles bodies on a stagecoach to take to town for collection, but the sheriff still believes in the law. Unfortunately, as Loco continually reminds everyone, the law is on his side. More importantly, the large, invisible mechanism of social contract is on his side, and the old dichotomy of the strong and the weak.

*Don't look at the Wikipedia entry for this movie if you don't want the end spoiled.

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