A man meets a woman in her apartment. She asks him how he will kill her tonight, he replies he will cut her throat. They make love and after, as they lay there naked, he does. He leaves fingerprints, footprints, and a thread from his tie at the scene of the crime before calling the police. He leaves the apartment, only to return several hours later as the Chief of Detectives in the Homicide division.
So begins Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. It is a 1970 Italian political thriller about the corruption of power, in turns blackly humorous and darkly satirical, set in the ‘Years of Lead’, a period of social upheaval and extremism. It showed at Derby QUAD this weekend as part of iD Fest, which is where I saw it.
In it, Gian Maria Volonté (maybe better known to British viewers as the villain in Sergio Leone’s westerns A Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More) plays a high-ranking police officer who murders his mistress Augusta, played by Florinda Bolkan. Throughout, the acting is brilliant, sleazy and intense, and in particular the lead Gian Maria Volonté; most reviews refer to this as his career-best performance.
As he leads the investigation, he begins a new role as the head of a political investigation unit. His power appears unlimited. His superiors wave away his questions on whether he needs to seek authority to tap peoples’ phones with the comment, “Do whatever you think is best.” The film switches between the investigation into the murder, the inspector using his new role to gather material to blackmail extreme left- and right-wing political agitators, and flashbacks to his time with Augusta, showing her sexual fetishising of his authority and power.
The film twists and turns. His motive for the murder seems to be a need to show that he is a Citizen Above Suspicion. Indeed, as we progress, the clues he leaves become more obvious and harder to ignore. But the reasons behind it all remain ambiguous. Is he an obsessive sociopath out to prove he’s better than his subordinates as he berates them in the station corridors? Is he trying to bring down the corrupt system from within, by showing what a man with his power can get away with? Or is he a child whose power-inflated ego is (murderously) bruised when his mistress insults his sexual prowess? Deciphering the inspector’s actions is joyous fun. It immediately made me want to see the film again!
In style, it is uniquely Italian. There are beautiful people, amazing outfits, a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, gorgeous locations, sex, extreme close ups of faces, death, and more hand gestures than you could shake both your fists at. In what other country would the colour of a tie become a plot point, or the murder victim evidently refuse to ever wear underwear?
And while the film is stylistically Italian, the messages are global and, despite the film’s clear 70s setting, still relevant today. In one memorable scene, the Inspector makes a speech about authority that comes straight out of a Mussolini textbook, and wouldn’t seem out of place at a rally in a city centre today. There are themes of class and guilt, with the Inspector rising above suspicion despite the clues clearly pointing towards him due to his job. The final shot shows a literal blind being drawn over justice, leaving the viewer to ponder exactly what shadowy deals will be struck.
Commissario Montalbano has introduced a large audience to the wonder of Italian crime drama, but the inspector here is not the champion of the people that Salvo is. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is like an episode of Columbo written by George Orwell and set in a paranoid, proto-fascist, rotten, corrupted Italy. It’s by far and away the best film I’ve seen so far this year, and this rare opportunity to see it on the big screen shouldn’t be missed.
You can catch it again on the big screen at QUAD on Wednesday 15 May and Thursday 16 May.