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The Great Silence

Most movie lovers fall into one of two camps. The greatest number seem to watch movies that entertain them, usually with pyrotechnics and effects and slam-bang action, without much pretense toward subtlety or craft. Most Americans seem to fall into this camp: they want to watch something big and exciting. And current - they want to watch and talk about the same movies everyone else is watching and talking about right now. These types of movies make them feel good. This is all fine, of course; nothing wrong with it.

The second main camp is composed of a much smaller number of people, who see film as art - they probably call it cinemaaaaaa - and who want to be challenged and intellectually motivated by what they watch. Big, brilliant epics like Lawrence of Arabia are fine, if a genius like David Lean is at the helm, but usually they want to watch a smaller, more intimate, possibly independently- produced feature. They don't mind tregedies - and I mean tragedies in the Greek sense, where the story doesn't end until all the principal players are dead; and they don't mind long, talky pictures, or films that take their languid, sweet time getting to any sort of action (like A Passage to India - whoops, there's David Lean again). This is all fine, too, of course.

The Great Silence There's a third group which seems to stand outside of the much larger camps, a group of odd ducks who seem to stand around like geeky acne- ridden teenagers at the school dance. This group loves some certain groups of movies and is indifferent to others. There are the sci-fi geeks, of course, and the splatterhounds who want to watch prop heads being ripped open. But there are also hippie-movie geeks, European-horror geeks, samurai geeks, Hong Kong action flick geeks. And spaghetti Western geeks.

The spaghetti Western lover is in a true minority because most of the films he enjoys are seen by others as being obviously inferior: after all, a lot of these cheap little Italian co-productions (and there were hundreds of them) are lacking subtlety, feature over-the- top scene chewing, dialog dubbed very badly, scripts that need polishing, etc. The great majority of these films - he will admit - were indeed made cheaply, so that they could capitalize on this whole wacky trend before it faded into oblivion. That's how the Italian film industry worked at the time: previously it had been sword-and-sandle flicks, featuring characters like Samson and Hercules. After the European Western died out, the giallos - stylish crime dramas - took over. The spaghetti Westerns burned bright and hot for a few years, but then they were gone. And as far as most of the modern cinematic world is concerned, that's just fine.

The Great Silence stands as one of the greatest of the Italian Westerns ever made, if not the greatest (it's hard to beat the Dollar films by Leone, of course). And it suffers from some of the same flaws that bedevil other similar productions. But even among its peers, it stands out, not just as a sort of nonconformist film - it doesn't even quite conform to the traditional spaghetti Western genre.

(****Note: Spoilers abound. If you're planning on watching this film - and you really should - then avert your gaze, because I'm going to be giving away the ending really soon.)

Silence takes place in a snowbound, mountainous section of Utah. Aside from Charles Bronson in The Great White Buffalo, how many Westerns can you think of that have snowy settings? Director Sergio Corbucci wanted an unconventional sense of place for this, his greatest film. He did something similar with the much better known Django - which, while it took place in a traditional Western town, was caked with great heaps of mud rather than dust. With nearly every frame of film we are reminded of how insufferably cold the landscape is.

Silence, the protagonist, doesn't speak a word throughout the picture - he can't, since when he was a boy he had had his throat cut by villains, who left him for dead. (Big mistake.) Silence is portrayed by French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was fortunate in that he didn't have to learn any lines for this film. Which was fine - a lot of Italian productions featured an international cast, who knew that their lines would be dubbed anyway - and probably redubbed for other markets. Silence's lover, the main female protagonist, is black (possibly Haitian, though this is not explicitly stated). Although black actresses were to be found nearly everywhere in the late 60's, having one as the main cowboy hero's girlfriend was unheard of.

The main thing that makes The Great Silence stand out, however, is the fact that it is so fucking relentlessly bleak. I'll just go ahead and tell you: the bad guys win. And they don't just win in the sense that they 'get away with it' - they win due to the fact that the hero and the hero's girlfriend and all of the religious people who opposed them are shot dead. And the bad guys even get to make money off of their corpses.

Cinema is full of downer-ending films, and even the spaghetti Western, despite its reliance on strong, singular heroes, abounds with examples where the protagonist dies at the end. (Not quite on the same level as the samurai pictures, but still.) But The Great Silence seems to wallow in its own sense of misery. Everyone is corrupt, or nearly so; the few virtuous characters die pointless deaths the same as everyone else. Sure, Silence gets his revenge on the men who had killed his parents; but he himself is gunned down by the scummy outlaws who are cleary his moral inferiors. Inferior, hell: the main antagonist, played brilliantly by Klaus Kinski, is a thoroughly slimy, rotten human being. But he's the one who rides away at the end of the film as a winner. The steadfast Mormons who suffered and fought bravely? Slaughtered like animals. Even Silence's girlfriend is gunned down, as is the newlay appointed county sheriff, who at first appears comical but soon proves his mettle. All dead.

All of this is not to say that The Great Silence is a completely morose film. Far from it! It's a beautiful film, and while the ending may not be morally uplifting, the viewer leaves knowing that he has watched a truly great piece of work. Corbucci made several Westerns, the most prominent of which was the afore-mentioned Django; but Silence is clearly his masterpiece. Or whatever passes for a masterpiece in such a bastard genre.

For that's what the Italian Western represents: a bastard genre, loved by only a few. Even 'spaghetti Western' is a pejorative term. And that's why these geeks who enjoy this sort of thing stand alone: because they realize what charms these films carry, and love them for it. And though the rest of the cinematic world may scoff, they know the truth: though these films are neither high art nor common vulgarity, they exist - like mankind standing between the angels above and the animals below - in some imperfect but exalted state between.

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