Review: The Mute Man of Sardinia
- Italian director Matteo Fresi’s film is a sophisticated western set in Sardinia in 1850 which explores an historic family feud, but which fails to drill down into the reasons behind this madness
It’s an antihero, a ruthless outsider with nothing to lose, who plays the lead in Matteo Fresi’s The Mute Man of Sardinia, an Italian film in competition at the 39th Torino Film Festival. The movie was born out of a legend hailing from north-eastern Sardinia which harks back to a true story, brilliantly set out in a historical novel penned by Sassari-born Enrico Costa and published in 1884, just a few years after these events unfolded. The story – of the book and the film, which was based on the novel – revolves around Sebastiano (Bastiano) Tansu, who finds himself at the centre of the terrible, all-encompassing feud which breaks out between the Mamia and Vasa families between 1850 and 1856 in the Aggius region. The Renaissance is in full swing, the unification of Italy won’t take place for another 10 years and the Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled over by Carlo Alberto of Savoy, encompasses Piedmont, Liguria, Nice and Savoy, as well as the island.
Deaf and mute, we see Sebastiano (Andrea Arcangeli) in flashbacks in the film’s opening scenes: in a world where superstition is rife, he’s considered the spawn of the devil who can’t be helped by exorcism nor magic. But his gentle soul leads him to become something of a mascot for several families in the shepherds’ village where he lives. He grows to harbour a restrained fury and learns to fire a musket with – admittedly - diabolic precision. When war breaks out between the two families for totally futile reasons, Sebastiano becomes an instrument of death in the service of Pietro Vasa (Marco Bullitta), an animal lost to the wilds who roams the woods of the Gallura, only materialising in order to attack, before fleeing his enemies and the king’s soldiers.
The beautiful, opening engagement ceremony, for a wedding which will never take place, straight away reveals Matteo Fresi’s directorial talent in this first feature film of his. Gherardo Gossi’s photography captures the splendid albeit arid landscape surrounding Aggius and Tempio Pausania, while Valeria Sapienza’s editing, supervised by Giogiò Franchini (Jonathan Demme and Paolo Sorrentino are just two of the many directors he has worked with), turn the film into a coherent, classic western where shootings and killings continue uninterrupted, accompanied by Paolo Baldini Dubfiles’ diverse musical score. The murder sequence barely leaves room for the story of impossible love between the young, mute protagonist and Gavina (Syama Rayner), the beautiful daughter of a local shepherd, before the film’s brutal epilogue unfolds.
Primarily focused on style, which is composed of sweeping camera shots of men on horseback silhouetted against the sun, Fresi (who wrote the screenplay alongside Carlo Orlando) directs his actors in rather mechanical fashion, relying on the protagonist’s angelic face and furious look in order to recreate some sort of dark and deeply rooted, epic story. But the depth of these roots, and of the characters’ souls, isn’t actually revealed, nor the mindset which drives these men to compulsively kill, sparing neither children nor elderly ladies. It’s hard for viewers to comprehend the codes of the unwritten rules in question, which transcend justice and originated in a form of feudalism which abandoned these lands to decay and anarchy. The power of gangs was often brutally stymied by the overarching power of the ruling classes who governed badly and had no interest in social development, preferring to redesign the confines of landholdings in order to benefit the rich and putting an end to free property, and the centuries-old tradition of shepherds and farmers taking turns to use land.
(Translated from Italian)
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