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