|© 2007 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
One of the watershed legal cases of the early
trial of a pair of Italian-born anarchists who had
settled in Massachusetts. Nicola Sacco and
Bartolomeo Vanzetti were accused of killing a
shoe factory paymaster and a security guard.
While the debate over their guilt or innocence
has continued to this day (just type their names
into any search engine and you'll get various
websites that argue the matter), at the time of
their incarceration in 1920 the United States
was at the peak of a "Red Scare." Brought on by
the Russian Revolution, the rise of labor unions
and the occasional terrorist bombings (such as
Haymarket in Chicago and an attempt on the life
of US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer), the
Red Scare was not unlike the anti-Arab
sentiment that swept parts of the United States
after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Those
who opposed the American government were
targeted, arrested and deported (among them
noted anarchist Emma Goldman). When these
two admitted Italian anarchists -- followers of
Luigi Galleani -- they were essentially tried and
convicted even before stepping into a
It's clear that the presiding judge was
prejudicial and in a fairer climate, Sacco and
Vanzetti might have been able to appeal their
conviction and possibly even gain a new trial,
but because of the Zeitgeist, they were
eventually electrocuted in 1927.
All of this is grist for Peter Miller's intriguing if
somewhat dry documentary about the case.
Miller includes contemporary talking heads like
Howard Zinn and Sacco's elderly niece as well as
the daughter of the paymaster who was
murdered. (She recounts how a college professor
asked her to read a poem about the case by
Edna St. Vincent Millay without realizing the
girl's connection.) There's the requisite archival
footage and Miller uses voice-over narration by
John Turturro (as Vanzetti) and Tony Shalhoub
(as Sacco) reading from the accused's letters.
He also includes scenes from the 1971 feature
directed directed by Giuliano Montaldo, who
offers his perspective on the case as well.
Surprisingly, this is the first nonfiction film to
tackle the subject and Miller manages to find
the parallels to contemporary times without
being too pedantic or heavy-handed. If his
approach to the material is rather unspectacular,
it may be that he felt the subject would be
powerful enough in its own right. There are
clearly troubling similarities to the way that
American's civil rights are being systematically
trampled upon under the Patriot Act and various
gung ho law enforcement agents. As such,
Miller's film is a worthy one and shows that
miscarriages of justice are possible in any time.
Running time: 81mins.
Viewed at Magno Review Two