The 1920 murder trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti should not, by the tenets of logic, have created much in the way of public interest. A pair of Italian immigrant anarchists in the Boston area, they were not celebrities in their own right. Nor were the victims they were accused of killing (a factory payroll master and a security guard) high-profile individuals.
Yet as Peter Miller’s excellent documentary “Sacco and Vanzetti” details, the trial and subsequent death penalty exacted against these men stood as a symbol of intolerance against immigration and radical politics. The furor against the railroading of Sacco and Vanzetti stretched to public demonstrations across Europe and Asia, generating the first international obsession with warped American judicial proceedings. Even when the man responsible for the murders openly confessed, Sacco and Vanzetti were denied a new trial since they were already prejudged by reason of their ethnic heritage and political leanings.
The hysteria that lead to the Sacco and Vanzetti case was rooted in twin hatreds: hideous prejudice against Italian immigrants coming to New England in the early part of the 20th century and the fear of European-rooted political movements that challenged the American status quo (particularly the economic aspect, where a select few maintained great wealth while the working masses lived in squalor). Sacco and Vanzetti (who barely knew each other prior to their arrest) subscribed to the anarchist political base, although they never participated in the bomb-throwing terrorism that many associated with the cause. They actually abhorred violence and both men briefly left America settle in Mexico in order to avoid military service in World War I. That self-imposed exile would be used against them as evidence of being anti-American.
Evidence against Sacco and Vanzetti’s participation in the crime was virtually nil. The prosecutors overcame that void by inventing evidence (including the planting of a bullet at a crime scene) and employing perjured testimony to convict the men. Evidence that supported their innocence was either kept from the courtroom or derided as unreliable (especially if it came from Italian immigrants who testified the men were elsewhere at the time of the crime).
The appeal process dragged on for seven years. The Communist Party (which never included Sacco and Vanzetti as members) used the case to stoke political dissent. By the time the duo were finally executed, their cause received universal notoriety. Yet even without the Communist flame-fanning, the circumstances surrounding the case created revulsion for its gross miscarriage of justice. Even before their electric chair executions, both men came to terms that they were doomed and left the world with dignity and intelligence; the film uses John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub to read from the eloquent correspondence penned by the doomed prisoners to their loved ones.
“Sacco and Vanzetti” offers commentary from the likes of Howard Zinn, Studs Terkel and Arlo Guthrie (performing his father Woody Guthrie’s “Red Wine”) to offer insight on the case. Also included in the commentary is Italian filmmaker Giuliano Montaldo, who directed a long-forgotten 1971 film on the case (clips from the film suggest it is time for that production to be reconsidered). The most remarkable commentator is Jeannette Parmenter, the daughter of one of the men whose murder was blamed on Sacco and Vanzetti. She recalls an awkward school incident when a teacher, not knowing her family history, assigned her to read a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay on the case.
“Sacco and Vanzetti” is a disturbing film, particularly since it appears there has never been an official posthumous exoneration of these framed men. Even at this late date, justice is still being denied to them. If the state government in Massachusetts refuses to acknowledge its execution of innocent men, then at least this compelling and powerful production can serve as a graceful elegy to the doomed men who were murdered by their adopted homeland.