Make no mistake about it: Michael Cimino's "The Sicilian" is unambiguously atrocious, but in that very special, howlingly grandiose manner that only a filmmaker with visions of epic greatness working on a large scale with a multinational cast can achieve.
In his novel "The Sicilian," Mario Puzo uses the story of the young Michael Corleone from "The Godfather" story during his exile in Sicily to frame the saga of the legendary Sicilian bandit-hero Salvatore Giuliano. In Cimino's version, which was written (at least partly) by Steve Shagan using Puzo's novel as its source, the filmmakers have dispensed with the Corleone story completely to concentrate on Giuliano.
The movie isn't just bad, it's bad in a uniquely emblematic, Hollywood way. And what it demonstrates, chiefly, is that debacles of this sort don't just happen -- they have to be worked at. If you add to the usual problems the lawsuit filed by Gore Vidal to include his name as author of the screenplay (a mind-boggling move, given what's up on the screen) and action taken by Cimino against his producers over cowriting credit and the right to final cut (both of which he lost in arbitration), you begin to see how films as baroquely awful as "The Sicilian" are born. The party or parties ultimately to blame for this mess may never be known (the release version is the work of David Begelman, the president of Gladden Entertainment, which produced the film).
Which isn't to say that Cimino isn't capable of cooking up a whopping dud all on his own. Cimino isn't interested in life-size figures; he builds his characters architecturally, out of limestone and granite. In "The Sicilian," Giuliano, played by Christopher Lambert, is a combination of Robin Hood and Christ. Shot in the stomach by the police while trying to run away with a cart of stolen grain, he is taken to a monastery, where he's expected to die. When he doesn't, he feels the winds of fate at his back. He will be the savior of his people -- whether they want one or not.
The movie moves through Giuliano's story, as he grows in stature from a scandalously dashing outlaw to a man who becomes such a hero to the Sicilian peasants that he threatens the power of the Mafia. All of this is told in the sort of florid, impassioned style of a historical-romance novel. It's like "Gone With the Wind" with Sicilians.
Puzo's material is pulp -- as it was with "The Godfather" -- but Cimino tries to recast it as myth. (In making the "Godfather" films, Coppola did the opposite and allowed the mythic structure to support his pop cliche's.) What Cimino has created here is a windy combination of self-seriousness and trash -- it's bloated pulp.
With the most outrageously ludicrous lines springing out of the actors' mouths in a hilarious cacophony of accents, it's hard to take any of this seriously. As Giuliano's girlfriend, Giulia Boschi is ravishingly beautiful, but she arches her back when she delivers her lines like a Playmate of the Month. Still, she's spectacular shouting out communist slogans in her high heels to the peasants, and she gives a ringing bravado to lines like, "It is I who am the unwise one, for I love you, blood and all. God help us both." And, as Giuliano, Lambert glowers at the camera as if he'd been hypnotized before each take, and his line readings have a sort of Steve Reeves, "Hercules Unchained" woodenness. He acts phonetically.
In general, a mad arbitrariness seems to have guided the casting. The German actress Barbara Sukowa -- whose dialogue sounds like it was dubbed by an AT&T operator -- turns up playing an American married to a Sicilian prince played by Terence Stamp, who's British.
With its sweeping, lyrical camera, and the radiant Sicilian locations, "The Sicilian" is an exceedingly handsome disaster, and, taken by themselves, some of the sequences are breathtakingly shot. There's a difference between watching a Volkswagen and a Rolls-Royce go plunging over a cliff, and this is definitely a Rolls. And just as definitely, it goes plunging, all in flames.
The Sicilian, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some violence and suggestive situations.