Welcome, and some thoughts on an Elio Petri classic…

Having a particular interest in Italian films of the 1970s it seems appropriate to write my inaugural post on a classic of the decade, Elio Petri’s Investigation of Citizen Above Suspicion (Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto, 1970). I was thrilled to find this playing recently at Film Forum as it has been commercially unavailable in the US; something its recent restoration will hopefully rectify.

Petri’s cinema belongs in the category of cinema politico, or cinema d’impegno, a tradition by which filmmakers overtly state their intentions to critique Italian society and politics (cf. Rosi, Pontecorvo, etc.). Yet Petri was also very conscious about entertainment value, and his film mixes political cinema with the giallo, or detective film. The film’s plot is simple but bizarre: a homicide inspector, on the day he is promoted to heading the police crackdown of political dissidents, decides to murder his mistress and carefully plant evidence proclaiming his guilt.

I could go on and on about this plot, but I’ll limit myself to a few observations: first, there is the none-too-subtle parallel to Fascism, seen in this clip of the Mussolini-esque inspector as he extols the virtues of a repressive state apparatus:

I love Gian Maria Volonté’s performance here; as a committed Communist he often played very boringly self-righteous political roles, but when he gets to play a villain he really shines. This parallel between the contemporary state and the Fascist era (1922-1943) should be contextualized in terms of Italy’s student movement and the state crackdown on leftist activism in the 1970s (though did the leader of the revolutionaries really have to be named ‘Pace’, or ‘Peace’?). But what is brilliant is how Petri teases out this theme of oppression and domination cinematically, such as in the Art Nouveau interiors of the sadomasochistic mistress (Florinda Bolkan), whose apartment is referred to as ‘D’Annunzian’ to liken her to the proto-Fascist writer. Other things to watch for are the film’s reliance on close-ups and extreme close-ups, to add to the discomfort of the viewer; the frequent references to technology (particularly wiretapping) that presage Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and anticipate 21st century debates on the state and privacy; and of course Ennio Morricone’s droll score. Until a DVD version is finally released in the US, you can watch the entire film (without subtitles) on Youtube.

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