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Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) ****
Dir. Elio Petri
Starring: Gian Maria Volonté, Florinda Bolkan
Review By Greg Klymkiw
There are no greater thrills than timing La petit mort to the precise moment of snuffing out the life of a willing sex partner, mais non? Ah, but how can it be truly, madly and deeply satisfying to a sociopathic killer when all the clues he leaves behind to point the finger in his direction will be wilfully ignored because he is, quite simply, a citizen above suspicion? This is the question facing Il Dottore (Gian Maria Volonté) after strangling Augusta Terzi (Florinda Bolkan), his mistress and game participant in sex play involving reenactments of violent death. You see, she's been unfaithful to him with - gasp! - a hunky, young revolutionary and now, she must pay for her infidelity - albeit in the otherwise pleasurable act of coitus (which, admittedly, will be one mega-interuptus).
This is Italy, a country as brimming with corruption, crime and civil unrest NOW as it was in the late 60s/early 70s when Elio Petri's creepy black comedy thriller was made. In fact, one of the extraordinary things about the movie is that it feels as sophisticated, intelligent and lacking any sense of being dated, as if it were made just yesterday. If Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion feels vaguely antiquated at all, it's probably because genuinely dark, truthful and nastily funny black comedies blending sex and death are pretty much not made anymore. (If anything truly dates it, though, is that it astoundingly and deservedly won the Best Foreign Language Oscar. A film like this would never win an Oscar in this day and age.)
Driven by Ennio Morricone's immortal musical score, featuring a main theme so familiar that those who've never seen this film will remark, "Oh, so this is where that tune comes from." Its disturbing, albeit sprightly rancour captures the perverse flavour of the story, setting and most of all, the character Volonté so brilliantly renders. Morricone feels as playfully malicious a tunesmith as Petri is as a filmmaker.
And yes, this is a movie as mischievous as it is grotesquely malevolent as Petri delivers one sex-drenched flashback after another juxtaposed with Il Dottore's obsessive need to stack guilt in his favour, if only to prove to himself, that he could have been caught redhanded, on film, with several high officials watching from a decent perch and still not be properly investigated - never mind being charged, tried, found guilty and punished.
The game Petri plays is as much a game that we're allowed to participate in and though some might find his political ironies obvious in the same ways so many of Lina Wertmuller's work (Seven Beauties, Swept Away) proved to be (at least to some), there's simply no denying the power of both the creep-factor and the incredulity with which one is forced to guffaw at the proceedings.
Finally, though, so much of what occurs in this film - just a few years shy of being half a century old - has the kind of resonance so many cinematic post-9/11 indictments approach with mere kid gloves in comparison. Petri drags us though the absurdity of blatant human rights violations - including physical torture - all exercised under the pretence of protecting the world from extremist radicalism when in fact, not a thing happens in this film that's ultimately not directly related to the notion of protecting the rights of those granted immunity from suspicion of any kind due to their class, their lofty station in the world.
Again, we have a perfect example of popular cinema from the 70s facing hard truths that our own filmmakers dare not address honestly in contemporary cinema. In any age, this would have proven to be a deeply disturbing film, but now, somehow, it's beyond that which is merely unsettling. We could well be watching a movie set in the here and now and realize that what we're watching is not far at all from the terrible truth of the world we live in.
"Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" is currently available in a first-rate dual format (Blu-Ray and DVD) edition from the Criterion Collection. The film not only looks and sounds great, but the added value extra features are so bountiful and illuminating that this is definitely a must-own title for all true aficionados and collectors of fine cinema. The package is replete with all the bells and whistles including a 4K digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural sound, a revealing archival interview with director Elio Petri, a tremendous feature length documentary entitled "Elio Petri: Notes About a Filmmaker", an interview with scholar Camilla Zamboni, a fifty-minute doc on the star of Petri's film "Investigation of a Citizen Named Volonté" and a superb interview with composer Ennio Morricone. Add to this the requisite trailers, new English subtitle translation, a lovely booklet packed with great written material and one Blu-ray and two DVDs all in attractive packaging.
SEE IT DURING THE TIFF CINEMATHEQUE SPECIAL SCREENINGS: SPRING 2014 - ONE SHOW ONLY ON APRIL 17 @ 9:30pm @ TIFF BELL LIGHTBOX AND THEN BUY THE MOVIE TO ENJOY FOREVER. For further info and tickets, visit the TIFF website HERE.