Elio Petri’s Crime Film is More Essential Now Than Ever – Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Film Review)

A man (Gian Maria Volontè) approaches the apartment of his mistress (Florinda Bolkan). Two frescoes bookend this building: one reads Justice, the other, Science. The flat itself is a seedy, darkened setting, its dominant light source coming from the stained-glass window at the end of the room, emanating a churchlike atmosphere. In the centre, there’s a bed. The man proceeds to make love to the mistress. She appears to orgasm. But she collapses: he has slit her throat. He leaves the corpse, moves to the shower to douse the blood off his body. He locates and removes her jewellery from its resting place, assumedly to sell on to the highest bidder. He calls the police and leaves. Where to? To the local police station: he’s the Head Inspector for Homicide, soon to be promoted to the Political Unit.

Now, from this detailed description of the opening scene, many would argue that Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a murder mystery. Yet the murder is solved within this opening scene: we see the killer commit his crime. Instead, what is significant are the details of the mise-en-scène which tell their own story, Petri’s true narrative: the critique of the institution. The mistress’ apartment, surrounded by reminders of Justice, Science, the Church – pillars of rational, democratic society – will be the scene of the abominable crime of murder, an offence committed by a leading representative of this society, the Police Inspector, who will go on to test the boundaries of his power and prove once and for all that he is ‘above suspicion’.

It is this politically ferocious filmmaking that determines Petri as a genius from this movie alone, not just in terms of a universally admirable quality, but also in relation to a localised relevance to our own time and the scandals that have arisen from the depths of the cultural and political establishments that sought to conceal them.

There’s a particular scene that affected me in this regard. As he returns from the crime, Volontè’s Inspector, celebrating his promotion with his colleagues, unceremoniously announces, whilst belittling a prisoner in their presence, that ‘the only guilty one here is me’. The response of his fellow federal agents? They simply laugh it off. He couldn’t possibly commit such a crime, and even if he had, no one would need to know.

With the events surrounding Weinstein, the British government, Kevin Spacey, amongst many others, this internal perspective is invaluable. Despite the suggestion of criminality in their midst, the agents do nothing: with power comes the ability to control knowledge and what the people don’t know about the corruption of the principle establishments will not hurt them.

It’s in Volontè’s increasingly manic performance that we begin to identify the cracks in this kind of surreptitious institutionalisation. At first, he’s composed, motivated and confident. Yet as the film progresses, with those leading the investigation into the mistress Augusta Terzi’s death failing to arrive at the correct conclusion that the Inspector is the culprit, Volontè’s assassino begins to erupt, ready to proclaim himself the murderer in a frantically purgative rant. It’s this development that marks Volontè as a talented actor in his own right, and as a monument for our own time: the laxity of law, in punishing those who have performed heinous acts, lays heavily upon the Inspector’s shoulders as he practically beseeches for the chance to be discovered. Yet he is refused this. The ramifications of such a revelation would break the mirage of democracy’s infallibility. And so he goes mad. Perhaps we will too.

All of this points to the penetrative picture that Petri has assembled in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. From the piercing screams of Volontè’s Inspector, to the politically charged script of Petri and Ugo Pirro and even in cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller’s uncomfortable use of extreme pull-in tracking shots, Petri’s film deals heavily in the aesthetics and opportunities of forward-momentum to the point of breaking through to the audience. Contemporary civilisation needs this kind of film. Law and order are no longer the saving graces of our times: Petri knew that, so should we. And so, Petri offers us a chance at realising change: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion offers a doorway, through which one will find the cinematic equivalent of a wake-up call.

Dir: Elio Petri

Prd: Marina Cicogna, Daniele Senatore

Scr: Elio Petri, Ugo Pirro

DOP: Luigi Kuveiller

Music: Ennio Morricone

Starring: Gian Maria Volontè, Florinda Bolkan, Orazio Orlando

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is showing as part of the ‘States of Danger and Deceit: European Political Thrillers in the 1970s’ season curated by HOME

Playing at HOME: 4 Nov to 12 Dec 2017