blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Sicilian (1987, Michael Cimino), the director’s cut

The Sicilian is based on a Mario Puzo novel about a real person and real events. The director’s cut runs about thirty minutes longer than the original theatrical version, which no doubt desperate distributors and financiers took away from director and co-producer Cimino in hopes of recouping some of their cost. Alas, no luck. It stars Christopher Lambert as The Sicilian. Lambert is not Sicilian; most of the principal actors in the film do not appear to be Sicilian or Italian. There might be a joke about Cimino trying to avoid the wrath of a Sicilian-American Civil Rights League showdown but in reality… they just couldn’t get the people. But Cimino professionally muscles through it and gets what might be the best performance Joss Ackland could give as a Mafia King of Sicily. Cimino doesn’t have as much luck with anyone else, though he comes closest with guys like Andreas Katsulas, Michael Wincott, and Ramon Bieri. Sicilian’s a troubled production with a terrible script (Steve Shagan), what would be bad for a late nineties, made-for-cable disaster movie cast, and an obstinate, ludicrously confident director.

For a terrible film, The Sicilian is very watchable. You don’t have to pay much attention and sometimes it’s better when you don’t. You might not realize how obvious the looping is on some of the main actors—I’m not familiar enough with Barbara Sukowa and Giulia Boschi to recognize their voices on the looping, but it’s obvious Terence Stamp did the looping on his own stuff. And then there are occasionally times it really doesn’t sound like Lambert, usually during scene transitions, in medium or long shot. Troubled production, Christopher Lambert playing a Sicilian Robin Hood, at some point what do you even expect.

The photography’s glorious. Alex Thomson gets to light all sorts of scenes—lots of exteriors in the Sicilian mountains (on location, which is cool) and it’s kind of fun to pretend you’re watching something really weird like Lambert doing a Highlander sequel (the guy he’s playing also dies and comes back to life magically here in Sicilian, though through force of will and good looks; more on those in a bit). But then Thompson gets to do terrible night club scenes, which are really badly directed and silly but at the sets are great and the lights are great. Even in Cimino’s most tedious shots, Sicilian always looks great. Oh, and there are palaces or great houses or whatever because Stamp and Sukowa are royalty. Plus lots of Catholic churches because the Church conspired to kill the guy Lambert’s playing.

Lambert’s playing Salvatore Giuliano. The movie starts with the origin story. Lambert and John Turturro—who is not good—steal some grain to feed the peasants, who the royalty and the mafia are somehow starving. With the church helping. I’m not being vague because it seems like bullshit, I’m being vague because of course they are. No shit they’re screwing over the peasants. To be a peasant means to be one being screwed over. So Lambert’s going to be a Robin Hood… or something. Because during the origin story, he gets shot and then miraculously recovers—to the point one of the very not-Sicilian priests in Sicily post-war (Richard Venture) tells him God was on his side until he turned against mother church, because obviously. He’s been blessed.

I think that scene is where you realize Lambert just can’t move his face muscles. Because everyone else in the car—Turturro, turning it up to eleven like he’s convinced himself he’s the Sonny Corleone in this one, Katsulas (who seems to know what kind of movie he’s in), and a trying super hard Wincott—they all can do immediate reaction. Lambert can’t be phased. But everyone around him acts phased, which just makes it more obvious. The love scenes in the movie are painful. Though given the film introduces Sukowa stripping on her way to the bath while making it shitty for her Sicilian maid? Oh, and then how Sukowa’s attempt to seduce Lambert goes… they could be worse. Cimino’s really tiresome with it.

Actually, with the female characters… I’m not sure Cimino got what Shagan’s script was going for. It would explain why Boschi has a really great character but a really shitty part and a not very good performance. Cimino’s really not interested in her. Sukowa’s an American-born duchess who flashes the local boys for goodness sake; she’s super interesting. Hashtag sarcasm.

But then, if Sicilian actually had any good ideas, it’d be less amusing a disaster. Part of it being digestible is its inability to challenge or surprise. It’s like a two hour and fifteen minute justified eye roll (the end credits are ten glorious minutes). Cimino’s really convinced he can get over the hurdles and somehow it’ll connect. This tale of a vain narcissistic heartthrob—everyone wants to be Lambert’s friend because he’s so cool (it’s occasionally cringe-worthy, especially when Turturro whines about Lambert’s greatness)—who doesn’t end up sticking up for the peasants and getting a lot of innocent people killed because he was full of shit. I’m not sure what the actual guy did, but in the movie, Lambert screws people over and then says he’s sad when they don’t forgive him. Then there’s a bunch of intrigue and sort of Godfather ending montage homage slash Puzo-verse thing.

The first act is the worst, before Lambert shows up and it’s just his godfather, Richard Bauer (who acts out his heart and is never any good), introducing the ground situation—Ackland the Sicilian mafia boss, Stamp the Sicilian prince, Sukowa the American duchess, all very silly, all immediate fails. Ackland works up from a very low place to be as close to adequate as possible. It’s incredible.

Not Stamp or Sukowa sadly.

Hopefully they bought nice things with their paychecks.

There are some familiar faces in the supporting cast. It’d be kind of embarrassing to call them out. Again, if it filmed on location, maybe a paid trip to Sicily isn’t the worst thing.

Besides the stunning Alex Thomson photography, the film’s technically middling. Françoise Bonnot’s editing can’t work actual miracles, but it doesn’t make anyone’s acting worse. Cimino’s direction is tedious, obvious—outside the film neon noir finish, which is actually good—but while a scene’s never efficient, they’re rarely ever too too long. They’re too long, but only by a line or two. Cimino does Sicilian with a really straight face, mirroring perhaps the emotional output of the lead.

David Mansfield’s music always seems like it’s going to finally take off but never does. It’s pretty though. It’s really pretty.

Great production design, set decoration. Costumes aren’t great but they’re occasionally amazing. Turturro goes around in a Christmas sweater for half the movie with no explanation. And what if the explanation for Lambert’s performance is as simple as costume designer Wayne A. Finkelman telling him he couldn’t move in the clothes or something.

Thanks to history, there’s now an audience for The Sicilian, it hits on just the right amount of film studies (Cimino and his John Ford shots are exhausting), bad movie standards (I mean, Lambert, plus Joss Ackland as a Sicilian mafia boss), and, hopefully, Thomson aficionados. But. Wow. It’s a stinker.

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