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"Sacco and Vanzetti". A Film by Giuliano Montaldo
English subtitles
Article published on 19 February 2007
last modification on 26 April 2015

by r-c.
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1. History

On 15th April, 1920, Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli, in South Braintree, were shot dead while carrying two boxes containing the payroll of a shoe factory. After the two robbers took the $15,000 they got into a car containing several other men and were driven away. Several eyewitnesses claimed that the robbers looked Italian.

A large number of Italian immigrants were questioned but eventually the authorities decided to charge Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco with the murders. Although the two men did not have criminal records, it was argued that they had committed the robbery to acquire funds for their anarchist political campaign.

The trial started on 21st May, 1921. The main evidence against the men was that they were both carrying a gun when arrested. Some people who saw the crime taking place identified Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco as the robbers. Others disagreed and both men had good alibis. Vanzetti was selling fish in Plymouth while Sacco was in Boston with his wife having his photograph taken. The prosecution made a great deal of the fact that all those called to provide evidence to support these alibis were Italian immigrants.

Vanzetti and Sacco were disadvantaged by not having a full grasp of the English language. It was clear from some of the answers they gave in court that they had misunderstood the question. During the trial the prosecution emphasized the men’s radical political beliefs. Vanzetti and Sacco were also accused of unpatriotic behaviour by fleeing to Mexico during the First World War.

The trial lasted seven weeks and on 14th July, 1921, both men were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Many observers believed that their conviction resulted from prejudice against them as Italian immigrants and because they held radical political beliefs.

The case resulted in anti-US demonstrations in several European countries and at one of these in Paris, a bomb was sent by mail to the American embassy. In 1925 Celestino Madeiros, a Portuguese immigrant, confessed to being a member of the gang that killed Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli. He also named the four other men, Joe, Fred, Pasquale and Mike Morelli, who had taken part in the robbery.

The Morelli brothers were well-known criminals who had carried out similar robberies in area of Massachusetts. However, the authorities refused to investigate the confession made by Madeiros.

Important figures in the United States and Europe became involved in the campaign to overturn the conviction. John Dos Passos, Alice Hamilton, Paul Kellog, Jane Addams, Heywood Broun, William Patterson, Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Ben Shahn, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Felix Frankfurter, John Howard Lawson, Freda Kirchway, Floyd Dell, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells became involved in a campaign to obtain a retrial.

Although Webster Thayer, the original judge, was officially criticised for his conduct at the trial, the authorities refused to overrule the decision to execute the men. By the summer of 1927 it became clear that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti would be executed.

Vanzetti commented to a journalist:

"If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, justice, for man’s understanding of man, as now we do by accident. Our words - our lives - our pains - nothing! The taking of our lives - lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler - all! That last moment belong to us - that agony is our triumph."

On 23rd August 1927, the day of execution, over 250,000 people took part in a silent demonstration in Boston. Fifty years later, on 23rd August, 1977, Michael Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, issued a proclamation, effectively absolving the two men of the crime - partly due to the powerful film by Giuliano Montaldo made six years earlier.


2. The Film

Italy, 1971.

Color and B&W, 120 mins.

Cast: Arrigo Colombo, Cyril Cusack, Riccardo Cucciolla, Rosanna Fratello, Geoffrey Keen, Claude Mann, Milo O’Shea, Giorgio Papi, William Prince, Gian Maria Volonté.

Screenplay by Fabrizio Onofri, Giuliano Montaldo and Mino Roli.

Produced by Arrigo Colombo and Giorgio Papi.

Music by Ennio Morricone.

Comments by Pietro FERRUA

Giuliano Montaldo’s film Sacco and Vanzetti is about 30 years old, and the events depicted happened more than 70 years ago. Present-day reality in relation to various aspects of the film, however, has not changed a great deal, and therefore, this work remains quite relevant.

The film raises several ongoing issues: the death penalty, fake justice, and political hysteria. The United States is the only officially democratic country to have kept alive capital punishment. All others are either dictatorial countries, such as China and Cuba; predominantly Moslem countries, such as Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen; or Third World countries, such as Congo and Nigeria. Western countries, including all of Europe and Latin America, have abolished the death penalty.

Another disturbing aspect of capital punishment in the United States is the overabundance of wrong condemnations. Statistics quote that among the "4,578 death sentences during the past 20 years, serious errors were found in an astonishing 68 percent of the cases." [1] Thanks to DNA analysis, many executed people have been found innocent of their accused crimes. The most notorious of those wrongly accused was the so-called Boston Strangler. Another famous case is that of Mumia Abu Jamal, who has been sitting on death row for the past 20 years, apparently framed by the system. After years of speeches and dozens of books (by Jamal himself and others) as well as an international campaign, his case is finally under review.

Similar campaigns were conducted in favor of Sacco and Vanzetti, to no avail. Their case inspired hundreds of poems, plays, novels, songs and paintings. They united people of all countries, religions and races in the fight to prove their innocence. The arrogance of the judges and others with the authority to decide was such that they violated the law, ignored evidence, and disregarded honesty and decency, rather than listen to outside voices. Even the fascist dictator Mussolini, a strong persecutor of anarchists, intervened in their favor confirming at least one alibi, but he was not listened to. Today Sacco and Vanzetti have been vindicated, rehabilitated, exonerated, but how many Saccos and how many Vanzettis will it take to get rid of prejudice?

Pietro Ferrua

Notes :

[1The Honolulu Advertisers , June 18, 2000, p.B 2.


arrow On web : See an Italian version of the film on the web with English subtitles

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