Review: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
Directed by Elio Petri
At the Charles Theater July 26 and 28

A man pops by a woman’s flat for a bit of afternoon delight. Once beneath her satiny sheets, he slices her throat, pushing her aside to exsanguinate. He showers, puts his clothes back on, takes some jewelry, grabs a few bottles of sparkling wine, and anonymously calls the police to say that a crime has taken place at her address. He then drives to work with the bottles of bubbly, which he uses to celebrate his promotion at Rome’s police department from homicide chief to head of the political division. While moving through the building fielding congratulations, he’s informed that somebody very recently called in the murder. Should he check it out?

Why Elio Petri’s “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” isn’t heralded as a classic of its era is one of cinema’s own little mysteries. Originally released in 1970, it was feted in Italy and at Cannes before going on to claim the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1971. And then it languished for the most part unseen, not receiving a U.S. home video release until Criterion Collection put it out last year. It has everything that makes European movies of this era alluring: stylish settings, stunning visual, political upheaval, skepticism of authority, and obnoxiously good-looking leads. Better still, unlike some time capsules of the time—e.g., Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film “Zabriskie Point”—“Investigation’s” political anxiety hasn’t just aged well, it feels eerily prescient.

Gian Maria Volonté plays the unnamed murderer and cop, simply addressed as “chief.” He’s overseen an impressive murder clearance rate and sees his promotion to the political department as a call to maintain law and order at all costs. Volonté is Italian-movie-star handsome, knows it, and toys with it. An eyebrow shift can turn insouciance sinister, and those well-defined cheekbones become menacing when he’s delivering a speech to his men that equates all subversives—aka students, leftists, homosexuals, anybody opposed to the status quo—with criminals, ending with the aphoristically chilling “Repression is civilization!”

The movie follows him as he follows the murder investigation of his mistress, Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan, wearing a series of fabulously ’70s getups). He practically dares to be found guilty, and a series of flashbacks of his relationship with Augusta suggest why he might’ve killed her. They liked to recreate crime scenes that he photographed, she began to make fun of his macho attitudes, and she eventually struck up a liaison with a young radical. 

This fusion of sexual psychology with political power is a staple of 1960s and ’70s European films; what Petri cannily adds to it is how casually power protects its own. The movie suggests that surveillance and displays of force are natural responses of any governing body, as its members could never be the causes of untoward actions, and the movie becomes a comically chilling portrait of the contemporary state.

And it does so with cinematic bravado. With an Ennio Morricone score that balances the jaunty and the creepy and striking cinematography, “Investigation” deserves to be discussed alongside those giants of political 1970s Italian cinema: Wertmüller’s “Love and Anarchy,” Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” and Pasolini’s “Salò.” 

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