Salvatore Giuliano is famously absent from the movie that bears his name, except in the form of a handsome corpse. From the discovery of his body, the film moves backward and forward in time to explore the events surrounding his rise and fall as one of the most notorious of all Sicilian bandits.
In the wake of the Allied invasion of Sicily during World War II, Giuliano was arrested for black marketeering. The truth was that without the black market, nobody would have survived in Sicily in that era. But Giuliano soon embarked on a full-blown life of banditry, robbing and kidnapping the wealthy while maintaining a close alliance with the peasantry from which he came. There's also some evidence that he did dirty work for local politicians.
Was he a true Robin Hood who helped impoverished Sicilians whenever he could? Or a stooge for the establishment, hired to keep a rising left-wing movement in line? Director Francesco Rosi's tour-de-force of sweeping realist filmmaking never answers that question but makes it the core around which the entire narrative turns.
The film's breathtaking vistas and tense set-pieces make for a beautifully composed work that infuses the gangster genre with passionate artistry and a questing political analysis.