[It’s] a disease I probably contracted from my prolonged use of power. It’s an occupational disease. —The chief inspector
Nineteen seventy-five found Elio Petri in a grim mood. While directing Todo modo (1976), a bracingly pessimistic film that dwells on the corruption of Italy’s ruling Christian Democrat politicians and ends with a body count to dwarf that of most slashers, he vented exasperation at his ongoing struggle to make radical political films within the mainstream Italian film industry, writing in his filming journal: “My error: to have wanted to make this genre of cinema with large-scale production, with the use of capital that hugely increases the objective difficulty of making it.” His doubts had been building throughout the seventies, a time during which he felt trapped between studios that worried he might become too political and far-left critics who insisted he wasn’t remotely political enough. Petri announced a dire ending, not just for his work but for a whole subset of Italian film: “And so the collapse of a certain type of cinema that I would call ‘political’ or ‘politico-popular.’ Polpop, poppol . . . ouch, ouch, ouch. Good-bye, polpop, good-bye, poppol.”
Petri hadn’t always been trying to walk that narrow line. While from the start of his career he had made films decidedly within the system, in the well-defined and well-funded space of Italian art cinema, only with 1970’s openly political Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion did he truly enter the more fraught, contemporary terrain of “polpop.” To be sure, his earlier films were replete with the full-bore existentialism and paranoia that marked all of his output, but they never tackled the kind of incendiary and historically precise material that marked Investigation, instead tending toward generalizations about “the modern condition.” We should be clear, however, that in the context of the “sexy comedies” and slapstick westerns that dominated mainstream Italian cinema, to call his increasingly fractured and difficult films pop is certainly a stretch. The “popular” in question for Petri designates neither a content nor a style but the prospect of a larger and more diverse audience than the small one of already politicized viewers for the unabashedly political work of militant filmmakers. “Polpop,” then, is best understood as both a project and a market designation, in which a number of directors—such as Francesco Rosi, the Taviani brothers, Marco Bellocchio, Lina Wertmüller, Damiano Damiani, Carlo Lizzani, and, from the beginning of the seventies on, Petri—made films, intended for wide release in first-run theaters and backed by state and industry money, that investigated structures of power and corruption or tackled conditions of patriarchy and consumer culture. Starting with Investigation and continuing with The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971) and Property Is No Longer a Theft (1973), Petri brought his already well-honed grotesque, fractured, and black comedic style to the project of tackling salient and hotly debated topics like police corruption, working-class rebellion, gender exploitation, and property relations. However, while doing so earned him the admiration of many critics and established him as one of Italian art cinema’s top exports (Investigation won an Oscar for best foreign film), his involvement with big studios and his sometimes abstract and absurdist treatment of highly particular contemporary social struggles earned him the vitriol of the far left. Combined with his own continual doubts about making radical films for production companies that saw only the prestige and profitability of “radical” topics, that attack from potential comrades was enough to take him to the verge of scrapping the whole operation.
Petri didn’t give up on the project, though, finishing Todo modo and continuing to work in the same vein until his early death from cancer in 1982. But four decades after he wrote that bitter elegy for polpop in his journal, it is still worth contemplating. Because in his moment of excoriating self-doubt, he nailed a suspicion that would haunt a whole generation of radical directors, critics, and audiences: is any attempt to walk the knife’s edge between two wholly opposed modes of cinema—genuinely political cinema and cinema made through the conventional means of production and for a general audience—doomed to fail?
Posed in general terms, it’s a question with no answer, because it depends on whether, like many of the “militant” critics of the time, you view any involvement with the mainstream film industry as collaboration with the enemy. But when we situate Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion in its own time and on its own terms, the answer is clear enough: the attempt is not doomed in the least, provided a key condition. Namely, provided that the film is willing to forgo a populist race-to-the-middle, schmaltzy triumphalism, or the doldrums of alleged objectivity, and instead get busy detailing the torqued and bilious world of a chief homicide inspector who slaughters his lover to test out just how far above the law he really is. In other words, provided that you remain committed enough to a total critique of the real state of affairs to obstinately remain not a realist.
That double condition—a drive toward social critique and a distaste for repeating what that critique had meant for Italian cinema in earlier decades—marked Petri’s life and work from start to finish. Born in Rome, he was politicized early. As he said in a 1982 interview, “I joined the youth movement of the Italian Communist Party at an early age, at fifteen, in 1944. Two years later, I joined the party, and I stayed until the events in Hungary. I left the party in 1956, after founding a journal called Città aperta.” The 1950s also saw the foundation of his heterodox relation to Italian neorealism, through the inestimable influence of the filmmaker Giuseppe De Santis, whose assistant he became. From De Santis, Petri seems to have taken, and extended to new extremes, a willingness to join serious sociopolitical materials to a style and tone open to swerves through the goofy, lurid, brutal, austere, tender, cynical, and grotesque. This fusion of critical realist “content” with expressive and disorienting filmmaking was for Petri a necessary historical response to irrevocable changes in the Italian film industry and the interests of its audiences and critics. As Petri described it in 1964, in the years of neorealism, “everything was done quasi-covertly by the producers . . . against the tendency of the average public, serving instead the anarchy and the adventurous spirit of the productions.” But by the time he was directing, the “structural crisis of cinema had caused the disappearance of the small producer and brought forth the formation of a monopolistic market in which there’s no space for producing films different from those already raking in the cash.” In this changed terrain, a simple reload of postwar realism was impossible, even if one desired it. Petri certainly didn’t desire it, and his turn to a grotesque and disjointed style is best grasped both as a refutation of nostalgia for neorealism and as a response to a bigger historical shift. As he put it in a 1962 interview, “The protagonist of Bicycle Thieves today must face not only the society he lives in but also his own consciousness.” Or, in other words, if Italy’s postwar “economic miracle” and rapid industrialization made it easier for some Italians to purchase a new bicycle, all Italians now faced an ever- increasing saturation of their world, thought, and everyday lives with the values, desires, and violence peculiar to capitalism. Capital becomes part of your “consciousness,” so ingrained that to turn against society will require a potentially schizoid operation of turning against yourself.
In response to this drastic transformation, Petri’s cinema involved neither a utopian vision nor victorious narratives of class struggle. Rather, his central effort was to make the toxic condition appear as ugly, pervasive, and totally absurd as it actually was. He was to approach this project again and again from essentially the same angle, from his very first feature, L’assassino (1961), on: through the lens of a single main character, who is always male, always Italian, and always white. (A key note: The absence of more extensive considerations of women is the source of an important reservation that has been expressed about the gender politics of not just Petri but the majority of politically minded filmmakers of the time. In Petri’s work, female characters, however complex they may be, are overwhelmingly present only as wives, lovers, mothers, or objects of desire, never as the center of the narrative.)
So while Investigation is the only of Petri’s films to feature a self- incriminating and wildly fascist cop, it’s best taken as one variation on a theme hammered through them all: an alternately depressed, psychotic, lonely, and alienated man struggles to comprehend the world he lives in, with end results consistently disastrous, gloomy, or lethal. In the seventies, Petri’s move into more explicitly political territory produced a “trilogy” of films: Investigation, the labor struggle melodrama/horror film The Working Class Goes to Heaven, and Property Is No Longer a Theft, a wildly allegorical fable about a thief who’s literally allergic to money. In these films and the two that followed, Todo modo and Good News (1979), a tortured drama focusing on a man whose job it is to watch TV, the sources of disaffection took more distinct shape: the state, labor, money, the media. But the frame structure stayed the same, resulting in a singular commonality among the films; it’s hard to mistake a Petri work for someone else’s. Still, much of their peculiar texture or “signature” comes from how they handle different material. Because rather like Jean-Luc Godard in the sixties, Petri borrowed, and then made strange from within, a number of recognizable genre schemata, none to be repeated, from giallo (Italian thrillers) to sci-fi to the Mafia film and the police procedural. And while some critics have seen this as the absence of a coherent style, it’s more productive to understand these generic frames as a set of interference patterns and frictions that give the films’ antipathy to modern life something meaty to sink their jagged teeth into.
That interference also gets doubled within each film, in the disjointed slippage between styles and narrative modes. Accompanied frequently by Ennio Morricone scores at once jarring and jovial, the films barely hold it together as they detour from sentimentality through alarming cruelty to the slow contemplation of a living room’s tchotchkes. For Petri, a world of irresolvable contradiction deserved a contradictory cinema, pushed to where we can hardly tell if it’s the film that makes our world appear so distorted (film as expression) or the other way around (film as reflection). Even more disturbing, and arguably the most unique quality of his work, is how his characters seem to register and embody this, as though they have already watched—and somatized—the film in which they’re trapped. Inextricable from its busted world, their restless physicality, bouts of machismo, and babbling refracts the texture of the film itself and vice versa, as the film, too, is racked by the characters’ tics and neuroses, until we’re left with a total vision of life seriously off the rails.
Many of Petri’s protagonists seem understandably terrified by this situation, but none are so terrifying to us as the unnamed chief inspector—often called il dottore, as is Italian custom—at the center of Investigation. After all, it’s this work in which the filmmaker’s contagious blurring of world and figure, space and style, spreads beyond solitary experience into the rule of law itself. Or, more precisely, into the figures who allegedly control where abstract law meets mortal bodies: the police. Along with William Lustig’s Maniac Cop (1988), Investigation is one of the great anti-cop films ever made. Its plot is remarkably simple and nasty: the inspector (Gian Maria Volontè) kills his decadent and masochistic lover, Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan), who has also been bedding down with Antonio Pace (Sergio Tramonti), an “individualist anarchist” who knows the inspector did it. In between flashbacks to the inspector’s kinky playacting with Terzi (they re-create crime-scene photos of murdered women) and his transfer to the head of the Political Section, which is engaged in a massive wiretapping operation and the interrogation and torture of radicals, the film follows the inspector as he does his damnedest to get the homicide detectives to accuse him, their former boss, of a crime whose scene he visited with them.
Volontè appeared in five of Petri’s films, and his performance here is simply astounding, in large part because he so thoroughly erases the gap between actor and character. Not, however, because Volontè is an uncanny shape-shifter, which he certainly is, but because the inspector is only ever playing himself. Everything he does is performance, from how he slicks his hair to how he practices his confession speech, imitating his own recorded voice and enacting the same gestures, facial expressions, and abrupt volume changes that mark how he speaks to others. That type of permanent performance is apt because the reason for his senseless crime is to assault the limit between embodiment of the law and law itself, not to call authority into doubt but to reinforce it, to discern its limits and then stand outside them. That’s the crux of his titular insuspectibility—not that he cannot be suspected but that it will not matter a whit if he is. And he isn’t the only untouchable: in a throwaway line, a surgeon, a “good citizen,” is also called “above suspicion.” But the difference is that, while the cops won’t touch the surgeon because he is respectable and bourgeois, the inspector will go unscathed because he performs the law, in all its neurotic fury. Which presents a real problem for him, because, as he says to himself, “if you send an innocent man to prison in your place . . . then the fact that you’re above suspicion has not been proven.” He therefore must be accused in order to show how he could not be, to test the degree to which the long arm of the law can raise its middle finger to those it serves, interrogates, and jails. His murder is, as he declares, “my sacrifice, with which I hope to reaffirm, in all its purity, the concept of authority.”
Investigation remains so powerful because what could seem to some a rather fanciful portrait of civil repression and corruption was, in fact, not far off from the actual situation of the bloody years of political dissent that were the Italian 1970s. The film appears psychotic and caricatural in large part because the Italian state was so itself, as it sought neither to pacify dissent nor mask its power. Rather, like the inspector, the state was more than willing to engage in a “strategy of tension,” covertly encouraging, excusing, and funding terroristic violence so as to bring things to a head and reaffirm the need for civil order, all the while pinning the blame on radicals. Between when filming on Investigation finished and when it came out, a bomb exploded in Milan’s piazza Fontana on December 12, 1969, killing seventeen and wounding eighty- eight. Anarchists were falsely accused, and one, Giuseppe Pinelli, taken in for questioning, died under highly suspicious circumstances after “falling” from a fourth-floor window of the police station. Petri and Volontè would make an experimental short film about Pinelli’s death, but Investigation, despite having been made before the incident, couldn’t help but be read by audiences as being about it, a strident refutation of what passed for the normal procedures of a state aiming to weather a social crisis by throwing gasoline, and citizens, onto the fire.
Any account of the film’s force, though, cannot rest merely on what it is about, because so much of its staying power comes from how it looks and works, from its ability to join determined condemnation to a tar- black humor and an unsettled, disorienting style. Petri’s work is often called expressionist, and though the term is frequently used loosely to characterize the fact that his films aren’t aiming for realism, it has a more determinate meaning: constructing, organizing, and distorting the world in accordance with the psychological state of a character or narrator. To be sure, Investigation does that in spades, from its spaces (the room crowded with gigantic, looming enlargements of fingerprints, for example) and its maniacal soundtrack to Volontè’s acting itself.
That said, the film could also be considered impressionist, in the sense that Lotte Eisner hints at in her study of German expressionism: a mode of distortion, blurring, and disorientation that does not reflect a psychological state but inheres in the world itself. The cinematography of Luigi Kuveiller, a regular Petri collaborator and a remarkable talent, brings this to the fore, through constantly putting objects in the way of our looking, too close to the camera, until they become giant blotches taking up most of the screen. His key technique is rack focusing, adjusting the camera’s range of focus without cutting, such that clear objects become blurry stains and fuzzy details become distractingly clear.
On the one hand, then, the contagion of a single cop’s madness, and on the other, the quotidian presence of that madness potentially everywhere. Perhaps the best word to describe this hybrid expressionism-impressionism is grotesque, the term most consistently used to talk about Petri’s cinema. In the Italian context, “grotesque” implies a concern with bodies and masks: abject, nervous, unruly bodies and the masking involved in a carnivalesque theater of power. But if we recall the origin of the term, a different sense presents itself. The grotesque emerged from the Italian rediscovery, in the late fifteenth century, of imperial Roman wall painting that featured a fantastic interweaving of bodies, architecture, objects, and vegetation. Investigation reminds us of that full, and largely lost, sense of the term as a total mode of interpenetration and blurring, figures becoming indistinguishable from ornament, plants becoming curling lines, and all elements at once autonomous and mere parts of an overall design—the film’s style, the spaces it shows, the characters within it, and the rule of law commingle into one hellish mess. Some might laugh Investigation off or treat it as a fantasy, and indeed it is far from a realist portrayal of those difficult and violent years. But in its grotesque complexity, it is exceedingly real, as real as the fact that the police did and do kill, did and do surveil and interrogate the innocent, did and do get away with it. And we aren’t laughing.