On April 15, 1920, someone robbed a shoe factory in Braintree, Massachusetts, killing a guard and a paymaster in the process. In one of the most publicized events in American criminal justice history, two Italian immigrants, Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested, tried, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to death. Private funds were raised for a series of appeals took the case all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court (the case against Sacco and Vanzetti was pretty questionable, and the convictions were likely based as much on their political convictions as anarchists as on any evidence presented). Their trial and the appeals process attracted international attention, with protests held as far away as Auckland and Montevideo.
Guiliano Montaldo’s 1971 Sacco & Vanzetti begins in black and white, with “newsreel” footage of a police raid on an Italian immigrant community. Windows are smashed, skulls cracked with nightsticks, pictures torn from the walls, furniture broken, and everyone, including children and old ladies, is summarily marched off. A series of newspaper headlines provide context: it’s the era of the Palmer Raids, which were aimed at arresting and deporting foreign radicals, including Communists and anarchists. Some of the headlines are triumphal: “Attorney-General Palmer Blocks Commie Plan to Overthrow U.S. Government,” “Radicals Finished in Boston and Massachusetts,” and “No Bolshie Revolution in U.S.A.” while others are critical: “Palmer’s Hysterical Acts Serious Threat to Democracy” and “U.S.A. Intolerance 1920.”
Joan Baez’s voice comes up on the soundtrack, singing the first part of “The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti.” It’s a choice dripping with irony* since the opening lyrics are taken directly from the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”. Nice words considering the civil liberties violated during the Palmer Raids (freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to due process), and also that one motivation for the raids was, I kid you not, a failed anarchist attack on Palmer’s home.
After the opening sequence, the film shifts to color, and the action to Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial, with flashbacks inserted to depict events described in witness testimony. Sacco (Riccardo Cucciolla, who won Best Actor at Cannes for his portrayal) and Vanzetti (Gian Maria Volonté, in real life a committed pro-Communist activist), are vigorously defended by attorney Fred Moore (Milo O’Shea in a scenery-chewing performance), but his clients have about as much chance as did the Scottsboro Boys ten years later. Montaldo’s sometimes showy camera work emphasizes the theatrical nature of the trial and appeals, as well as how quickly Sacco and Vanzetti became symbols of a nation’s fears or ideals, depending on which side you’re on.
Sacco & Vanzetti, an Italian and French co-production shot in Dublin, was shown at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. With a length of 125 minutes, plus a strong European cast, I’m willing to hypothesize that it was a prestige production, even if, to an American eye, it looks a bit rough and ready. I suspect the latter is due to a limited budget, compared to what Hollywood could put forth at the time, and there’s a lot to enjoy in this film, including the mix of factual content and melodrama, well-staged tableaux, and committed acting performances. Rosanna Fratello won Best Young Actress from the Association of Italian Film Journalists for her portrayal of Rosa Sacco, while Ennio Morricone’s score won the Nastro d’Argento (Silver Band) from the same organization. | Sarah Boslaugh
Sacco & Vanzetti is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber, with a street date of May 3, 2022. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox, the trailer for this and four other film, and a choice of audio tracks in either English or Italian as well as optional English subtitles.
*There are actually three parts to this song, all politically charged, and all heard in this film. The second begins “Father, yes I am a prisoner / Fear not to relay my crime…” which is taken from a latter written by Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The third part begins “My son, instead of crying be strong / Be brave and comfort your mother” which draw on Woody Guthrie’s song “Sacco’s Letter to His Son” and is juxtaposed with newsreel footage of police suppression of demonstrations. Another Baez performance is heard over the end credits: Morricone’s “Here’s to You, Nicola and Bart.”