Satire requires a tricky combination of subject, perspective and tone. It’s hard to nail all three of those qualities, and while tone is maybe the most glaring hazard in that trio, perspective may be even more vital: how wide is the satirist’s scope and do the limits of their moral vision impair or enhance their understanding of their subject? Control seems to be key: is the director in control of their feelings about their subject, or are their feelings running riot? In June 2020 I gave widely differing reviews to a pair of Italian satires, DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE (1961) and SEVEN BEAUTIES (1975), the first of which ably restrained its potential disruptions and produced a biting appraisal of Italian sexual politics, while the other was a wild, gonzo, miserable mess of unhinged deeply felt vituperation.As Italian comedies tend toward broad caricatures, the scale of “too much” is already teetering too close to the tipping point to handle an outpouring of generous Italian emotion. That brings us back to the importance of control, which is doubly relevant in Elio Petri’s 1970 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Film, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, in which the title character’s struggle with control matches that of the satirist.
Gian Maria Volonté stars as an upwardly mobile police inspector who celebrates his incipient promotion with a murder. At first, his motive appears to be a meta-trolling of the Italian criminal justice system, as he plants both incriminating and misleading evidence at the scene and taunts his former colleagues in the homicide division, confident that no one will suspect him. However, as Petri and co-writer Ugo Pirro (whose subsequent movie, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970), would win the next year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar) disassemble the crime and the culprit through flashbacks and an evolving conscience, it appears there may be more at play than a sociopathic social experiment.
Typically for Italian satire, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (a.k.a. Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto), treads a rocky path between broad gestures and fine insights and comes up with more of the former than the latter. Set against the backdrop of the turbulent 1970s European politics, when activist cells like The Red Brigades made a practice of violent opposition to the authoritarian practices of the ruling class, there’s rarely any subtlety or equivocation in Petri’s anti-establishment sentiments. He and Petri limit their scathing indictment to a very particular type of Italian official and the system in which it’s almost impossible for them not to succeed. Within the parameters of its foregone conclusions, it’s effective enough if not exactly provocative. But Petri adds enough little details to enrich the movie’s simplistic point of view.
Most interesting in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is the characterization of Volonté’s victim, Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan). As flashbacks explore their relationship, the balance of power between them shifts, introducing elements of cultural subversion, emasculation, and a conflict between simple-minded idealism and nihilism. By contrast, Volonté’s inspector looks neither confident nor clever, more like a wounded boy who has coasted to middle management by virtue of his lack of imagination and morality. Although the film begins with her murder, in their interactions she is the more predatory, callous and devious of the two. While this might get written off as Italian misogyny, it’s the sharpest little prick of complications in a movie that otherwise shrugs at domestic terrorism in order to scoff at the heavy-handed governmental response.
The biggest weakness in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is Volonté’s character and what it requires of him as an actor. Although he spends most of the film attempting to appear unflappably powerful, which he does very well, when the cracks show in his composure they are too wide and Volonté is forced to swing from cool to unhinged in a manner that weakens his performance. This broad duality may simply be the flavor of this type of narrow satire, but it’s not particularly interesting to watch and often begs credulity. It also hamstrings the climax with an unconvincing character turn and then some narrative sleight-of-hand that punctures the overall impact of the ending in order to humiliate a character.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is technically appealing, with a nice look from cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller and a bouncy score from Ennio Morricone, plus several neat examples of 1960s modernist architecture.