Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)

          The American counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s was not wholly unique, because people around the world spent those turbulent years questioning authority, often at great personal risk. The dense and provocative Italian film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion reflects this fraught sociopolitical environment, because the picture employs tropes from the satire, melodrama, mystery, and thriller genres to examine the abuse of power by individuals and institutions. Specifically, the movie tells the fictional story of a high-ranking police detective who commits a murder, succumbs to guilt, and leaves a trail of incriminating clues—only to discover that his political position renders him all but invulnerable to prosecution, no matter how heinous his crime. The wicked plot also illustrates how corrupt officials use unsolved crimes as tools for making politically undesirable people disappear. There’s an element of deliberate absurdity to the storytelling, and yet there’s also a sobering element of truth.
          Gian Maria Volonté plays the film’s unnamed protagonist, whom viewers first encounter without context. He’s shown arriving for a tryst with his freespirited lover, Augusta (Florinda Bolkan), who enjoys gruesome role-playing. In the course of “pretending” to murder Augusta, which turns her on, the protagonist slashes her throat. Then he methodically tidies the crime scene, calls the police to report the murder, and leaves. That’s when cowriter/director Elio Petri reveals the protagonist’s professional identity: He was recently promoted from the top job in his city’s homicide squad to the top job in the police department’s political division. Despite having left homicide work behind, the protagonist inserts himself into the investigation of Augusta’s murder, ostensibly to steer his colleagues away from evidence that might incriminate him. Yet as the protagonist’s psyche unravels, he changes course and begins placing physical evidence; during one bizarre scene, he confronts a stranger on the street and confesses to Augusta’s murder, forcing the stranger to study the protagonist’s face so the stranger can give police a vivid description.
          Petri intercuts this sort of material with flashbacks of the protagonist’s relationship with Augusta, whom, we’re lead to believe, sealed her fate by making fun of the police. Petri also features recurring scenes of the protagonist speaking with his superior officers, who distribute and wield political power like soulless monsters. The film’s ideological stance is never in doubt, especially with villainous characters delivering such lines as, “Repression is civilization!” Yet the picture never feels one-sided, since the protagonist is all but driven mad once he realizes how immoral his government has become; for half the film’s running time, the character advocates the abuse of power, and for the other half, he seeks real justice.
          Despite enjoying almost universal acclaim—the picture won an Oscar as Best Foreign Film--Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion can be challenging to watch. The plot is crystal-clear, executed with Hitchcockian crispness, but the flashbacks with Augusta are repetitive, the politically charged dialogue exchanges are strident, and the film is generally overlong. It’s also hard to get emotionally invested given the sociopathic nature of the protagonist. Nonetheless, the synthesis between the film’s politics and its premise is nearly perfect, and the outrageous final scenes make a powerful statement about the determination of those in power to preserve the status quo.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion: GROOVY


Allen Rubinstein said...

Hi there, Peter.

Found your site a few weeks ago and love, love it! I've been watching seventies movies in bulk and I'm working on my own big writing project using 67-75 as my framework. Yours is the only site I've found outside of IMBD and the like that knows some of these obscure films.

I do think you need to revisit this one though. I think you'll find your reading of it is off. The protagonist feels no "guilt" at all. He's as unrepentant as he is evil, and he's practically daring the authorities to hold him accountable for his crime. The whole thing is a sick game and a test of his power to be entirely above the law. And there's no turnaround in the course of the plot. He is at the crime scene with the body still bleeding out on the bed while he's planting evidence against himself. I also don't see any evidence of his psyche unraveling or him being driven mad. He's already a piece of work when the film starts, and knows full well (and is in favor of) the corruption in the system. He's pushing at boundaries like the Fascist he is (this being Italy of course).

I can see with your read of the film that it would seem less impressive than it is, but if you take another look, you'll see how truly chilling it is. Of the dozens I've watched since March, it's one of my personal favorites.

By Peter Hanson said...

Where I see the guilt and unraveling is toward the end, once he's "won" his game and freaks out among his superiors. For me, that's the moment when his humanity surfaces upon his realization that the system is even more corrupt and inhumane than he imagined. He thought he was at the top of the food chain, and his discovery that he's as much a pawn as anyone else jostles his understanding of the universe. I would go so far as to say that I believe that moment contains the crux of the whole storyline. I agree completely, of course, that he's a sociopath, but his exclamations during that critical moment complicate the portrayal, hence my reading. In all such things, just my opinion.