Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)

Practically everything about "Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" is charged with eccentricity. Even the background score by Ennio Morricone, although at times tense and with a sense of urgency, is replete with a bouncing spring shoes sound that you would normally hear in some kids' cartoon! And then, although it does seem off-kilter and throws you off balance, the gradual introduction of the central character of this deliriously wicked film, makes the music a fitting component to its mood. It is a score that is tinged with a playful tone and oozes mockery, reflecting the traits of the central characters and the satirical nature of the script itself.

Italian filmmaker Elio Petri's film follows a top cop with pathological tendencies. The dapper looking man, presumably in his forties, known only as Il Dottore (Chief) (Gian Maria Volontè) enters the apartment of a lovely young lady, Augusta (Florinda Bolkan) and they exchange some very odd lines.

"How are you going to kill me this time?"
"I am going to slash your throat".

The woman appears to be a masochist. Within the next couple of minutes, the man slashes the throat of the young woman with a razor blade and there is blood all over. Just when you think you are watching another version of Claude Chabrol's excellent "Juste Avant la Nuit" (1971) with some giallo thrown in the mix, something very strange happens that catches your attention. The murderer takes a breath, and proceeds to leave behind some brazenly obvious clues that could implicate him in the crime. He prances all over the floor with bloody footprints, leaves fingerprints, leaves threads of his fine blue tie in her finger-nail, takes a shower, has a drink and then makes a phone call to report the crime!

It is shortly after this strange scene, that we learn that the protagonist is in fact, a very popular figure; the police chief of the city homicide squad, with a prolific career history behind him and a record number of murder cases solved to his credit. It is his last day as head of the homicide squad and he has been promoted to head the political division. But a man devoted to his duty that he is, he confidently goes to the crime scene to investigate the reported murder of the woman, with his replacement and subordinates by his side. All these head-scratching developments make you wonder where the film is going, but the title, eventual happenings and a sharp focus on the protagonist make us aware of what kind of a twisted beast we are dealing with.

Elio Petri's film is a delightfully quirky mashup of a darkly comic police procedural and a fascinating psychological study in perversity. The protagonist is a blunt man with power in his words and speech, an archetypal leader, who is respected, feared and in some cases, hated. He advocates repression and talks of cracking down on wild young revolutionaries. He walks with a pompous swagger, an air of arrogance and carries a perpetual expression of smugness and superiority, that's gleefully over the top.

So confident he is, of his reputation and command over the police department that in a curious move, he decides to put his power and influence to the test! And therefore the deliberate planting of clues and constant hints to put himself into the spotlight of the crime. This is a man who knows his police department and the state of affairs. He knows that he is an influential person and also a guiding light in the investigation and therefore, is above suspicion and hence, untouchable! He even goes so far as to fearlessly try and let himself be noticed at the crime scene by the only person, a neighbour, who may recognize him to have been present in the apartment building at the time of the murder.

So while they find the the chief's fingerprints, his footprints, a thread of a tie similar to the one he was wearing, he continues to be coolly ruled out by the investigators. The investigation reaches absurd proportions when the authorities start turning a blind eye to the most obvious of evidences, be it because of their incompetence, ignorance or simply, fear of their superior officer. Going a few steps further, he confesses to the commander that he had an affair with Augusta. The commander stops for a second, but then puffs his cigar and goes on to ask if it was 'good', instead of holding him as a possible suspect. 

The protagonist is the kind of quasi-fascist cop who takes delight in abusing his power, exercising control and spewing speeches like a fascist leader, and yet at the same time, denounces fascism in favour of democracy! It becomes apparent that the protagonist is playing the puppeteer and holding the strings of his entire police force. He is playing a wicked game, in which he pulls them down when they get warmer and practically leaks the answers when they seem lost, at the same time, daring them to even touch him in the process! 

With what intentions the protagonist plays his sick games is debatable. Whether it is to derive sadistic pleasure from watching his subordinates nonchalantly ignoring any possibility of his involvement in the crime, or whether it is to actually expose the corruption within his department and to prove to them empirically, that no one is really above suspicion. It could very well be a bit of both! The entire department itself is portrayed like some kind of a caricature of the Italian police force, given their draconian ways and homophobic inclinations.

The camerawork is as idiosyncratic as the protagonist. There are uncomfortable closeups, disorienting, hallucinatory shots, and fast camera movements, especially when paranoia begins to creep its way into the protagonist's psyche. His sweaty, exhausted visage practically leaps at us from the screen. With abrupt and almost seamless flashbacks interspersed within the narrative, Petri makes us aware of the kind of depraved relationship shared by the protagonist and Augusta.

She is a bonafide masochist full of twisted ideas that she is vocal about. She likes to be photographed in various poses of faked murders resembling crimes that her lover has solved in the past. He eggs her on and a mutually morbid bond is formed! In one excellent scene, she asks for condescending treatment and he gives it to her. In the process, he goes on to explain the foundations on which established authorities are built upon and mentions university professors and even station masters as examples! It is also in these flashbacks, that the protagonist's motivations for the murder come forth. The past merges with the present, when fantasies begin to take shape and a dead Augusta makes an appearance in some surreal moments, if only merely to further poke the protagonist into misusing his powers.

But somewhere beneath this thick, insensitive exterior that is drunk on power, is a vulnerability that is revealed, perhaps metaphorically making a universal statement about most fascist leaders. In the opening scene, just as the protagonist commits the murder, the camera appears to tremble for the next thirty seconds. Whether this is a technical goof or intentional on part of Petri to show the weaker side of the protagonist is open to interpretation.

"Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion", despite being an Academy Award winning film is an overlooked, forgotten masterwork that is now finally out of the dark with the recent Criterion restoration. This highly original piece of cinema has a sharp script, spectacular camerawork and an unconventional handling that is only enhanced by some great performances. Rendering a seductive charm to the proceedings is Bolkan who makes a good impression in her few scenes. 

But at the the center of Petri's film and standing tall, is the explosive performance of Gian Maria Volontè. It is a character that needed the energy, the hysteria, the pompousness as well as an uber cool persona to go along, and Volontè embodies all these characteristics to perfection and plays the part with gusto, especially in that jaw-dropping finale that ends with an apt quote from Franz Kafka's "The Trial" that drives home the essence of the film.

Score: 10/10


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