Director: Elio Petri
Screenplay: Elio Petri, Ugo Pirro
Starring: Gian Maria Volontè, Florinda Bolkan, Gianni Santuccio, Orazio Orlando, Sergio Tramonti, Arturo Dominici
Running Time: 115 min
Criterion’s latest addition to their ever-growing UK collection is Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. It’s a title I’d heard of but knew very little about. I wasn’t aware of its director either, though on researching this review I realised I owned another one of his films but hadn’t got around to watching it yet (L’assassino which was released on Blu-ray by Arrow a while back).
Perhaps I should have paid more attention then, particularly as, looking at Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion’s pedigree, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1971 as well as the Grand Prix at Cannes. It was even popular enough to warrant The Cannon Group to pursue the production of an American remake in the mid-eighties with Andrei Konchalovsky of Runaway Train fame attached to direct, Paul Schrader to write and either Al Pacino or Christopher Walken in the lead role. This fell by the wayside, but Sidney Lumet was attached to pick up the project in the 90s, after Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures bought the rights, but again it never happened. It’s probably for the best, as I doubt a Hollywood makeover would have done this exceptional film any favours, despite the impressive names attached.
Investigation (as I’ll name it for the rest of this review because, let’s face it, the full title is pretty cumbersome) sees Gian Maria Volontè play Dottore, chief of the homicide division in Rome and currently moving up to becoming chief of the political division. At the beginning of the film, we see him murder his lover, Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan), and place some evidence on the scene that will prove he did it. He even reports the crime himself over the telephone.
Of course, the investigation falls into his department and he observes and nudges forward his team of detectives into finding the culprit. You see, Dottore is determined to prove that, as the title suggests, he is ‘above suspicion’. As the film goes on, he seems to be feeling some remorse for the crime and ramps up his dropping of clues as to his involvement. However, with Terzi’s husband being gay (which was frowned upon by the religious masses and Christian Democrats in power in Italy back then) and another of the victim’s lovers, Antonio Pace (Sergio Tramonti), being a political radical, the authorities are too keen to pin it on one of them. Plus, even if they knew Dottore did it, dare they arrest such an important figure of authority?
The actual central premise of Investigation may be far-fetched but its satire is clear, sharp and was very relevant at the time. It was made during a period of political unrest, particularly from students who were attacking the repressive Italian authorities. Petri wanted to channel this in the film and came dangerously close to reality in some points.
There was an infamous bombing in Italy at the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura (the National Agricultural Bank) during production which was frighteningly similar to one that occurs in the film. The Piazza Fontana bombing, as the real-life event became to be known, was blamed on anarchists, similar to the radicals portrayed in Investigation, but it later turned out to be caused by a right-wing group (unfortunately after one of the anarchists died during interrogation, which the authorities called a suicide before changing their minds to call it an accident. Many think otherwise). Petri and his team were worried the film would never be released after the bombing, but surprisingly it still made it to screens with the scene intact.
What I admired about the film was that, although fiercely political, it never gets bogged down in verbal debates or waves a particular flag. Instead, it focusses in on its disturbed authoritarian protagonist and his unusual experiment to test just how powerful he has become, and it does all this in the mould of a police procedural. Of course, we know the culprit all along, so it’s very much a deconstructed take on a murder mystery or giallo. As such, it treads its own, unique path, but remains as tense and gripping as any straightforward thriller.
Driving this energy and tension forward is a lot of fluid camera movement and a fast-cutting editing style. There’s also plenty of subtle black humour bubbling under the surface, particularly in the film’s climax. So, what could have been merely an academic exercise becomes an exciting, audience-friendly film. I’m a huge fan of this type of cinema that straddles the line between deep, intellectual work and crowd-pleasing entertainment.
Another potentially derailing element to the film is the fact there are no likeable or sympathetic lead characters. The story pretty much solely focusses on Dottore, who has few redeemable qualities, but thanks to a superb performance from the great Gian Maria Volontè, you can’t keep your eyes off the character. He plays things cold and cool for the most part, but explodes when railing against the political revolutionaries and his sanity seems to begin to unravel in the final act as things build to a head.
Before I round things up, a special note must be made to the great Ennio Morricone’s score. It’s used sparingly but grabs your attention whenever it appears, with its unusually bouncy, rhythmic theme that has an air of comedy about it, countered by Herrmanesque strings in the background.
Overall, it’s a striking subversion of the murder-mystery thriller, with bold, sharp political satire at its heart and a vein of subtle humour running throughout. It’s one-of-a-kind and compulsive viewing, so comes highly recommended to anyone that likes a film with bite.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is out on 18th January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture quality is excellent, with rich colours and detail. It sounds great too, with Morricone’s score coming through particularly nicely.
Special features include:
– New 4K digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– Archival interview with director Elio Petri, conducted by critic and filmmaker Alexandre Astruc
– Elio Petri: Notes About a Filmmaker (2005), a ninety-minute documentary on the director’s career, featuring interviews with friends, collaborators, and filmmakers
– New interview with film scholar Camilla Zamboni
– Investigation of a Citizen Named Volontè (2008), a fifty-minute documentary about actor Gian Maria Volontè
– Music in His Blood, an interview with composer Ennio Morricone from 2010, conducted by film critic Fabio Ferzetti
– New English subtitle translation
– PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Evan Calder Williams and excerpts from a 2001 book by screenwriter Ugo Pirro
Camilla Zamboni’s interview is excellent, analysing the film’s themes and discussing the context in which it was made.
The Petri documentary has some notable contributors like Altman and Bertolucci. It runs through Petri’s work chronologically, for the most part, and made me keen to dig further into his filmography. It offers an interesting and comprehensive view of his career.
The Volontè documentary digs deep too, into the actor’s impressive career and detailed working practices. It describes him as an important and influential figure in Italian cinema, as well as casting light onto his troubled later years.
The Morricone interview is great, with the legendary composer discussing his process, playing a little piano and providing a few illuminating anecdotes about working with Petri.
The archival interview with Petri is a bit overly philosophical and meandering for my tastes, but it makes some interesting points and the director talks about why he likes to make films with substance but have an approachable, audience-friendly presentation.
I wasn’t provided with a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.