In recent years state archives from Moscow to Washington have opened long-buried files on unsolved crimes. Not in Italy, where to flesh out an infamous 1947 massacre of Communist farmers in Sicily, director Paolo Benvenuti and his team had to do their own digging. Though couched as fiction, “Secret File” is a meticulous documentary reconstruction of the incident supporting what most Italians already believe: The bandit Salvatore Giuliano was part of an anti-Communist plot masterminded by the Christian Democrat party. For foreigners, the film, with its dry convoluted script, lacks the basic info to make the story interesting and comprehensible.
Like Francesco Rosi’s classic film “Salvatore Giuiliano,” “Secret File” focuses on the trial of Giuliano’s band after his death; with Giuliano out of the picture, the main character is his right-hand man Pisciotta (David Coco), a cool cucumber sitting in prison with all the keys to the puzzle.
Anchoring the investigation is an honest lawyer (Antonio Catania), a kind of gray-suited Sherlock Holmes who, with the help of an expert and a professor unravels the extremely complicated plot. These are invented characters supplied to guide the audience through mountains of ballistics and forensic exams, mostly for naught: Unless you are already familiar with the case, as are the older generation of Italians, the reconstruction devolves into a bewildering storm of names and suppositions.
Benvenuti, director of “Confortorio” and other historically based films with an experimental bent, chooses abstraction over drama and cardboard figures over three-dimensional characters. That makes the film dry and cold-blooded, especially without a musical comment to create a mood.
Using detailed artist’s drawings, Catania earnestly illustrates how Giuliano was double-crossed by Mafia groups in the pay of the Christian Democrat government. Figures on the blackboard attempt to explain who fired 800 bullets in the field of Portella della Ginestra, killing 11 and wounding 27 farmers celebrating a Communist party victory at the recent elections. A scale model of the surrounding mountain dotted with little flags demonstrates who was where. But in the end, the filmmaker’s version is anything but clear.
Film’s one successful visual aid is saved for the end, when the Professor (Sergio Graziani) lays out picture cards of the people involved and builds a pyramid from Giuliano and his crew all the way up to President Truman and the pope.
Tech work stamps the film as a quality production, notably cinematographer Giovanni Battista Marras’ seductive lensing in a TV format. Giovanni Addante’s dapper costumes for Pisciotta (limned with intense cool by Coco) raise a rare smile.