3 stars (out of four)
Nicola Sacco, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and the incredible firestorm of protest and outrage generated in the 1920s by their celebrated criminal trials have been largely neglected in recent years, but Peter Miller's absolutely engrossing documentary "Sacco and Vanzetti" brings it all back.
Shoemaker Sacco and fish peddler Vanzetti were immigrant Italians, both left-wingers and anarchists, arrested in 1920 for the payroll robbery of a shoe factory and the murders of paymaster F.A. Parmenter and a guard, Allesandro Berardelli. They were convicted in a case hinging on dubious eyewitness and ballistic testimony, Sacco's physical similarity to one of the robbers and the fact that both carried guns. And the convictions were upheld despite numerous attacks on the unfairness of the trial and the prejudices of Judge Webster Thayer--who presided over both trial and appeal and referred to the defendants as "anarchist bastards"--and the most telling fact of all: In 1925, professional bandit and Joe Morelli gang member Celestino Madeiros confessed to the crimes and exonerated both of them.
They were executed by hanging in 1927 amid worldwide protests, and though much less known today, their names--for much of the first half of the 20th Century--won sympathy around the world. They became flashpoints for debates on immigration, political extremism and official injustice, and they inspired many works of political art, ranging from Maxwell Anderson's play "Winterset" to Giuliano Montaldo's 1971 movie "Sacco and Vanzetti."
This riveting new film by director Miller shows why. Marshaling archival footage and numerous interviews--with, among others, writers Howard Zinn and our own Studs Terkel--the film masterfully revives the past. It also pretty well convinced me that the pair were probably innocent of the robbery and murders and were railroaded by the prosecution and Thayer. One of the movie's most moving elements is the duo's famous prison correspondence, as eloquently read by Tony Shalhoub as Sacco and John Turturro as Vanzetti. But Miller's obvious passion and dedication shine throughout.
'Sacco and Vanzetti'
Time: 1:20. Runs Fri.-Thu. at Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton Ave., 773-281-4114, www.facets.org/cinematheque. No MPAA rating. Parents cautioned for mature themes of violence, bigotry, political extremism and repression.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun