Disc Jockey: ‘Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion’ goes digital


‘Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion’
Criterion Collection

A confident, well-dressed man whose name we never learn (Gian Maria Volonte) visits his mistress (Florinda Bolkan). He murders her, then intentionally leaves very obvious clues implicating himself. Then he goes to work: As it turns out he’s the chief of police, and he’s handling the case. But it’s not clear if he wants to avoid arrest or engineer it. What he does want to do is prove that he’s gotten the point where he’s so corrupt he can break any law.

So goes the pitch black 1970 Italian satire “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion,” which its makers were convinced would get them busted. Director Elio Petri and cowriter Ugo Pirro blatantly attacked the police, and grimly captured the political climate of Europe in general. Indeed, the film was so hot button that a terrorist bombing that occurs in the film happened, almost to the letter, in real life after it the sequence was already filmed. Petri and Pirro even toyed with leaving the country before its premiere. Instead it was a hit and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Like many Italian films of the era, it’s both stylish — Volonte, best known to Americans as the main villain of “Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More,” looks like a smirkier, scarier version of Sean Connery’s James Bond — and proudly political. Petri sought to make what he called “polpop”: films that used mainstream forms to sell hard-line political content. Till this point he was more pop than political: “The Tenth Victim,” made five years earlier, lampooned violent entertainment long before the likes of “Rollerball.” “Investigation,” which seeks to warn of Italy’s backsliding into fascism, goes the other way: it’s more political than pop. But it was lucky to strike the right chord at the right time.

Also like many Italian films, “Investigation” concerns feelings that are hard to dramatize or even film. As with the vaguely brooding bourgeoisie in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni — or the aging party boy in the new “The Great Beauty” — our anti-hero’s specific motivations are never clear. He doesn’t know what he wants exactly, and his mission — to prove he’s above the law — can never really be proven in a satisfying way. (If he’s right, he’s never busted, and that’s it.) The only difference is he’s far more dangerous. Mired in existential despair, he’s attempting to escape from a system, but it’s one he can’t help perpetuating. He’s anguished, but he can’t turn off his charisma. He hates himself for targeting young activists even as he clearly enjoys torturing them. His minions are a boys club of gleeful neo-fascists he despises, yet he revels in the power he wields.

The film would be redundant if it wasn’t as crazy as its protagonist. It’s a dark comedy but it’s also deadly serious; the maddeningly catchy score by Ennio Morricone is at once jaunty and sinister, just like the film. Even as its circles around a single point, illustrating the entrapment felt by its self-hating madman, it remains a film hard to pin down. It jostles us about as violently as the police torture its populace.

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