Director: Vittorio De Seta
Screenplay: Vera Gherarducci, Vittorio De Seta
Starring: Michele Cossu, Peppeddu Cuccu, Vittorina Pisano
Country: Italy
Running Time: 96 min
Year: 1961
BBFC Certificate: TBC

The Italian filmmaker Vittorio De Seta was well-respected through the latter half of the 1950s for making a series of documentary shorts focussing on the poorest workers of Italy’s more remote regions. In fact, his first short film, Islands of Fire (1955), won the Best Documentary Short award at the Cannes Film Festival and those that followed were equally praised.

At the turn of the 1960s, De Seta decided to make his first foray into feature filmmaking, crafting a fiction film but one that was imbued with the realism of his documentaries and focussed on similar subjects. That film was Bandits of Orgoloso. Once again, the film was met with considerable acclaim, winning a handful of awards at the Venice Film Festival.

These days, however, Vittorio De Seta has been largely forgotten, particularly outside of Italy. It’s not helped that his name is very similar to the more famous Vittorio De Sica. I must admit, when Radiance Films announced they’d be releasing Bandits of Orgoloso alongside ten of De Seta’s short films on Blu-ray, I made the mistake of thinking the set was dedicated to De Sica. When I realised the error I’d made, I didn’t lose interest though and still requested a copy to review.

Bandits of Orgoloso is set in Orgosolo, Sardinia. It focuses on the trials and tribulations of Michele, a shepherd watching his flock with his young brother, Peppeddu. One day, out on the hills, Michele comes across a group of bandits who have stolen some pigs and are using his hut to rest a while.

The Carabinieri (the national gendarmerie of Italy) arrive at the shepherd’s hut enquiring about the bandits and, whilst they have fled, the criminals left the remains of one of the pigs they slaughtered and the authorities find these. Not wanting to ‘rat out’ the bandits, Michele keeps quiet and, when the criminals are spotted by the Carabinieri, they take up the chase.

Michele uses this opportunity to disappear, as the Carabinieri are unlikely to take his word that he wasn’t involved in the theft. His situation worsens, however, when the bandits kill one (or maybe several) of the Carabinieri, meaning the authorities see him as being linked to this murder.

So Michele goes on the run and his situation seems to get worse at every turn.

Bandits of Orgoloso was made after the ‘golden age’ of Italian neorealism, so isn’t usually classed as being a part of that movement. However, it certainly has a flavour of that genre, striving for realism by shooting on location and using non-actors (the shepherds played themselves and other actors were just locals), as well as highlighting the plight of the less fortunate.

Where De Seta’s film deviates a little from those that came before it, however, is that more artful, cinematic techniques were used to create a visually stunning film rather than a ‘gritty’, handheld style of presentation. Great use is made of the landscape, in particular, and the lighting can be quite beautiful.

The editing, courtesy of the great Jolanda Benvenuti (who edited a number of neorealist classics), is perfectly controlled too. The ‘action’ scenes are given great energy and tension is well developed, making for a gripping watch.

All these strong technical aspects, including the sound design and music, make for a film that has a cinematic poetry to it. De Seta keeps dialogue fairly minimal (largely due to the inexperienced cast, I imagine), instead telling his story through thoughtful shot choices, clever editing and subtle use of sound.

De Seta’s shorts prior to this point took an ethnographic approach, exploring customs and working practices not present in modern, mainstream Italian society. There is some of that here too, with attention paid to the way Michele handles his sheep and makes cheese, for instance.

More of a story is, of course, added to Bandits of Orgoloso though. This is kept simple but works effectively. I found the glum Michele and bleak narrative made for a film that’s perhaps hard to warm to though.

Overall, however, whilst a little grim, Bandits of Orgoloso is beautifully directed and compelling. It’s a spellbinding blend of naturalism and cinematic artistry that, like its director, deserves to be better known.

Film:

Shorts included on The Lost World bonus disc

Islands of Fire (1954, 11 mins) – This looks at the inhabitants of the volcanic island of Stromboli. It’s one of the more dramatic shorts, building up tension as the volcano seems ready to erupt and a storm brews simultaneously. The crashing of waves heightens this. As with the rest of the films here, sound is put to great use, though more intensely in this case. There are some striking shots of the volcano and surrounding island too.

The Age of the Swordfish (1954, 11 mins) – This documentary looks at an ancient form of swordfish fishing that is still practised by a few. It again makes stunning use of the landscape. There are some remarkable shots at the top of boat masts too. Once again, there’s a nice use of sound effects and music recorded at the location, as the men chant on the boat and the women ashore sing as they do their chores. There’s a striking shift in energy too, when a swordfish is spotted and the men go from lazing on the water to frantically rowing to catch up with their prey.

Golden Parable (1955, 10 mins) – This film looks at the “cyclic parable of the harvest” in Sicily. It’s a particularly stripped-back and simple piece. As throughout these films, the editing is wonderful, accentuating the rhythms of the work alongside the sound design.

Sea Countrymen (1955, 11 mins) – This follows a group of fishermen on the hunt for tuna. Like The Age of the Swordfish, it plays with the change of pace and volume between waiting for the fish to be lured in and the rush when the men go into action to trap them and pull them in. The pulling up of the nets with the giant fish thrashing around near the surface is quite spectacular, though the bloody affair of spearing them out of the water is something animal lovers might not want to see.

Surfarara (1955, 11 mins) – This documentary follows men working in sulphur mines. The underground footage is claimed to have been shot at 500 metres deep. The minimal light is put to good use, making for some atmospheric footage. The film also nicely contrasts the work below the surface with that above.

Easter in Sicily (1955, 10 mins) – This does what it says on the tin, showing the unusual traditional Easter celebrations of a community in Sicily. They’re built around dramatic reenactments of the biblical story. The atmosphere of the festivities is nicely captured. It’s probably my least favourite short on the disc though as it gets a little repetitive.

Orgosolo’s Shepherds (1958, 11 mins) – This, of course, is the film that most directly pairs up with Bandits of Orgosolo, as well as A Day in Barbagia. We watch the shepherds’ activities in considerable detail, such as milking goats and making cheese. It’s fascinating to watch and elegantly shot, with great use of light and colour.

Fishing Boats (1959, 11 mins) – This again charts the work of a team of fishermen. The heavy rocking greatly adds to the atmosphere and the understated sound design is as exquisite as ever. De Seta captures some wonderful moments and details.

A Day in Barbagia (1958, 11 mins) – This film looks at the lives of the women and children living in a region where most of the men are shepherds who spend their days out with their flocks. We see the women perform arduous tasks in the magnificent landscape. Once again the sound design is as beautiful as the imagery and the seemingly unforced footage of people at work and play is as captivating as ever.

The Forgotten (1959, 21 mins) – This longer documentary takes a look at the day-to-day activities and annual customs of the inhabitants of a mountain village that has been cut off from the rest of the country due to the lack of a proper road leading to it. Like Bandits, it offers a beautifully observed and exquisitely shot picture of the often difficult lives of those living on the fringes of society. It captures some wonderful moments. The climbing competition where men compete to climb as high as they can up a huge erect log was particularly eye-opening.

Shorts:

Bandits of Orgosolo + The Lost World is out on 26th June on 2-disc region free Blu-Ray, released by Radiance Films. You can order it here. The transfer on Bandits of Orgosolo is magnificent. It looks astonishingly sharp and detailed with perfectly balanced contrast. The audio sounds impressive for a film of the era too. The shorts are softer and show their age a little more, but I imagine that’s because they were shot on 16mm and using an old colour process (Bandits is in black and white). They still look remarkably good for their age and relative obscurity though. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review to give you an idea of how the films look. The audio is strong too, even if there’s occasionally a little wobble.

LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES:

– Disc 1: New 4K restoration from the original camera negative by The Film Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in association with Titanus with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation
– New interview with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (2024, 28 mins)
– New interview with curator and filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht (2024, 11 mins)

– Disc 2: The Lost World: A programme of ten restored short films by De Seta, featuring Islands of Fire (1954, 11 mins), The Age of the Swordfish (1954, 11 mins), Golden Parable (1955, 10 mins), Sea Countrymen (1955, 11 mins), Solfatara (1955, 11 mins), Easter in Sicily (1955, 10 mins), Orgosolo’s Shepherds (1958, 11 mins), Fishing Boats (1959, 11 mins), A Day in Barbagia (1958, 11 mins), The Forgotten (1959, 21 mins), restored by Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation.
– Archival interview with Vittorio De Seta (2008, 18 mins)
– New interview with curator and filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht (2024, 21 mins)
– Trailer
– Optional English subtitles
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Filippo Di Battista
– Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by Roberto Curti
– Limited Edition of 3000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

The short films are the biggest draw here, if you count them as extra features. I’ve covered them above. They’re strong enough to be considered part of the main film programme, in my opinion, rather than mere ‘extras’.

De Seta himself talks about his short films in an archival 18-minute interview. He talks about how he got into making films relatively late and how he learnt his craft. He goes on to discuss the importance of the subjects he filmed, elements of Italian culture that were being lost to time and ‘progress’. He wanted to capture them before they disappeared.

Ehsan Khoshbakht discusses De Seta’s career in making shorts, covering each film included on the disc as well as giving a handy overview. It makes for necessary viewing alongside the shorts.

Khoshbakht also records a piece about Bandits of Orgosolo. Similarly, it’s a vital coverall piece that provides context and analysis of the film to help better appreciate its many qualities.

Luciano Tavoli talks about how he got into the industry and found his first job with De Seta on Bandits. Then he discusses how it was to work with this unique director. It’s an enjoyable and eye-opening interview.

I haven’t been sent the booklet to comment on that, but the Radiance booklets I’ve read so far have been valuable supplements to the films.

Overall then, it’s a fabulous release that lovers of documentary filmmaking and Italian neo-realism would be urged to pick up. I particularly enjoyed the shorts, so I’m hugely grateful that they were added to the release.

Disc/package:

Bandits of Orgosolo + The Lost World - Radiance
Films
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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