Like with Gabriel Marquez's engrossing short novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Francesco Rosi's cinematic adaptation of Salvatore Giuliano begins with informing us of the death of the titular character, then spends the rest of its time in a non-linear exploration of the events leading to that point. But who is Giuliano really? It's not a question the film is too interested in exploring. This is no biopic, its "hero" almost a prop for all the personality he is imbued with. We hear about him from the conversations and accounts provided by the other characters. During the flashback scenes where he is alive, we never see him front and direct, only off-screen or from behind the shoulder views.
History tells us that Giuliano was a bandit conducting kidnaps and extortion from his mountain hideout in Sicily. He had the reputation of a Robin Hood, and the local polizia found heavy resistance from the poor locals in their attempts to capture / repress him. At one point he was allegedly hired by the Sicilian governing body to run a campaign to give Sicily independence from Fascist Italy. Giuliano was also supposed to have been in cahoots with the Mafia to crush the influence of communists demanding for land reforms. In the context of the latter occurred the incident that started the count for his downfall - the Portella della Ginestra massacre, in which his men allegedly fired into a crowd of hundreds of people attending a public address by the communist party.
Rosi's film covers the above ground with a surgically precise sequence of incidents and points of view. The script maintains a constant ebb and flow between the events of Giuliano's turbulent life and the immediate aftermath of his killing. In its way, the film shows us how the perception of Giuliano depended on who he was allied with at a given point of time - when he fought the Facists on the behalf of the local government and Mafia he was hailed as a hero, when he took on the communists for that same Mafia who wanted to guard their land holdings he was an infamous bandit. Even the suspicious manner of his death (was he taken in a gun duel with the army or shot by his own man) and the post-mortem efforts by various parties to squarely place the blame of the massacre on Giulano's men while severing all ties with them bring to mind the unholy nexus between people in power and people of violence to keep the masses in check. The significant use of locations and non-professional actors from Giuliano's home town of Montelepre greatly builds the immersion. It is to my view a cousin of Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers. It is not as incredibly thorough as that film in presenting a documentary-feel, but its roots in the neo-realist film movement can definitely be seen here. Gianni di Venanzo's visuals carry more flair and a strong whiff of film noir in the composition and lighting.
P.S. I also remember reading a Mario Puzo novel called The Sicilian, a potboiler that mixes up the character of Giuliano with Michael Corleone during his time of exile in Italy.