It is almost certainly the case that this is an uninformed generalization based on the nationalistic segmentations of modern society since the late 1700s, but Italians just seem to have the most fun making their films. Again, a generalization, but then the fact that nations have, like them or not, been constructed over the course of the modern era does in fact mean those nations, by virtue of government, economic, and social divisions, bear social differences in how groups of people like their art, and boy is it my impression that Italians like their art most furiously.
An effervescence for art that is true of great Italian directors like Sergio Leone and Dario Argento, not to mention Federico Fellini. Based on my first interaction with him, it is also true of Elio Petri, although his variant of fun is undoubtedly of the existential, morally probing variety and beset (and bolstered) by significant pangs of anxiety and unrest. His 1970 film, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, is not an easily digestible film, filled as it is with an unanswerable mixture of social oppression and a wickedly devious, anarchic mockery of oppressive social hierarchies. But the acidity of the digestion only makes the taste all the sweeter.
All that oppressive, acerbic comedy is filtered through a plot that is as elemental as earthly possible: a police officer with a shiny new promotion on his belt ( the office but not the belt is played by Gian Maria Volonté; the belt is presumably played by Gian Maria Volonté’s belt) murders the woman he loves, knowing full well that his status as officer will grant him immunity from the brunt of a police investigation (he is, essentially, a citizen above suspicion). Pointedly, the reasons for his action are arbitrary; it is as if he murders her simply because he can get away with it, rather than because he particularly feels any venom toward his target. It is a test to the social system, or a nihilist action of smug superiority, a murder simply because he doesn’t care anymore. Or a murder because he can.
Petri clues us in to the elegant arbitrariness of his characters as well; we do not know the officers name because it doesn’t matter. He is an “officer” largely because his individualism, his humanity, has been stripped from him by the ranks of corporate Italian society, and he is a figure more than a human being, a social “type” that serves the place of a general social malaise and disinterest in humanity (tangentially named characters as placeholders for ideas being a key diving board for most of Italian genre cinema, although Investigation is not as pointedly abstract as the human limbo that makes up The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). If all of this sounds entirely like an Antonioni film, what with the examinations of human figures as stand-ins for mirthless modern social types rather than full-fledged people, well, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is not unlike an Antonioni film. If, of course, Antonioni had snorted a rather large amount of cocaine during every day of filming and then directed his films from atop a Ferris wheel.
This is manic cinema without scruples, parading under the mask of renegade-cop thrills only to reveal an intolerable cruelty aimed straight at the heart of the Italian police, and police bureaucracy the world over. It is a cinematic torture room with every tool imaginable for inflicting pain on the police. In the murderers’ row of insidious, barbed, Gothically baroque devices for pain we find all the usual suspects, and many unusual ones.
These suspects include a restless, boundless sense of clipped comic timing (courtesy of editor Ruggero Mastroianni, who does an ungodly amount of work to keep the film booking from beginning to end) that affords us no room to contemplate the idea of not verbally assaulting the police. The suspects include Volonté’s fairly uncontested, downright hurtful performance as a man without purpose who emerges as a man with a sort of conceited master-plan to disregard everyone who isn’t like him, and, it turns out, everyone who is like him as well. The suspects include Lugi Kuveiller (who, like every Italian film person from the time, got his hands on every kind of genre cinema imaginable) who experiments with broad, pop colors against a grainy exterior just for the sheer fun of contrasting the two (it is a color scheme that, like the editing, deliberately rejects the sequenced formalism of order and authority, exactly the formalism and authority the film itself rejects in the Italian world).
And the torture devices include, especially, Ennio Morricone’s devilish smirk of a cunning score, wonky and weird and sprightly in the loopiest minor key, or the most demented major key (I cannot tell which), but it is absolutely unlike Morricone’s more famous score’s for Leone’s Westerns (it is less arcane and otherworldly) even if it no less sane. More than anything, that ever-present sense is that the music sounds absolutely out of its mind, boldly mashing together moods and tones and styles without much regard for sense and the good order of things, like a pitch-black theme that would sound well placed with a Charles Addams cartoon featuring a pot of boiling oil and a person or two being lowered into it.
All together, the whole film is an absolutely brutal jab into the heart of scaffolded hierarchies and authority altogether, all the more blood-drawing when its fangs do peruse the question of why exactly the murder was committed in the first place. The film is less interested in an answer, but the scariest possibility is that our anti-hero simply wanted to see if society would let him get away with it. The citizen walks around with an all-knowing sense of disorder and esteem like an enfant terrible with a nasty streak, as though, having accepted the essential fact that the Italian police aren’t about to soil his good name and beset by the weight of a desire to do something about this knowledge, he decides not to actually interrogate the Italian police but simply to have a little pitch-black fun with them.
Even the title, in this regard, is a dirty trick: the officer/citizen seems to place up incentives for the police to catch him, and yet they always willfully avoid the evidence (such as blood) he has abstractly and surrealistically placed in front of them (you can’t have a good Italian genre film without blood anyway). The broadest possible outline of an investigation occurs, but the investigation is by the murderer and of the police – it is as if he wants to investigate whether they will accept their need to catch him – and not an investigation by the police of him. Ugo Pirro, working with Petri on the script, plays this material for the cascading absurdity it entails, pulling the strings of society with the heart of a classical “picture with a moral” but with none of the soporific stuffiness that genre entails. Investigation is a film with a necessary social statement, but unlike so many social statement films, it has a rampaging, incendiary style to match its disjunctive critique of society. It isn’t dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools, to quote Audre Lord. It is inventing its own cinematic brand of deliriously fanatical comic disruption to disassemble the rules of cinema along with the rules of society. It is a madhouse of a film.