The social engagement of neo-realism takes a few steps forwards in Elio Petri’s revelations regarding the alienating games of power, with clear lines to Kafka’s The Trial.
On 15 and 16 April, Italian political cinema will be the theme at Cinemateket, including seminars and film screenings. One of the genre’s most central directors is Elio Petri. In his film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, which draws lines of references to both social engagement of neo-realism and to Kafka’s The Trial, Petri shows how power alienates the individual, and how film can be a direct political tool to reveal this phenomenon.
When we talk about Italian cinema today, we often talk about the golden age of Italian cinema – neo-realism. Few people are familiar with the political cinema that arose following neo-realism, but which also has clear lines of references to neo-realism. Neo-realist cinema did not only renew Italian cinema, but international cinema after WWII. After films such as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) and Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), a number of films focused on current social topics, challenging dramaturgical and cinematic norms, and thereby closing in on the documentary style. Rather than constructing dramatic intrigues with professional actors, filmmakers should now instead take their cameras into the street and establish contact with social reality. This resulted in a politicization of the medium, a politicization that runs like a red thread through the history of Italian cinema, and which prospered greatly during the so-called Years of Lead in 1968-1980, when terror and violence characterised Italy: the bombings on Piazza Fontana in Milan in 1969, then in Brescia in 1974 and on the express train between Florence and Bologna the same year, before culminating with the kidnapping and murder of the former Prime Minister and Christian Democrat Aldo Moro on 6 March 1978 and the bombing at the train station in Bologna in 1980.
Increased inflation, lower production, market competitiveness and oil boycotts created political and social unrest during these years. Corruption and scandals strengthened the distrust among people to authorities, political parties and labour unions. Political cinema grew in Italy as a direct reaction to this crisis and to the authorities’ lack of ability to act on behalf of the people.
A direct political tool. Political cinema during these years remained faithful towards the social engagement of neo-realism. At the same time, it encouraged more action in the break-up of trust between the people and the state, and the loss of traditional values was a fact. In addition to those who are known internationally, Italian political cinema’s foremost filmmakers were Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci, directors like Elio Petri, Francesco Rsoi, Marco Bellocchio, Guiliano Montaldo, Ermanno Olmi and the Taviani brothers. All these directors have strong connections to neo-realism, but focused on critical realism to a greater extent than their predecessors. The film should no longer just show reality as it appeared, but also free the individual from oppression. As such, cinema had become a direct political tool in the fight to free the individual from the alienation of capitalism. Particularly Francesco Rosi and Elio Petri are seen as the leading directors of Italian political cinema. But while Rosi’s films are often connected to a specific Italian reality, Elio Petri’s films are more philosophical and entertaining, and more accessible outside of Italy itself.
The master of political cinema. Elio Petri’s (1929-1982) formal education in cinema is limited. After having worked as a film critic and script consultant, he made his debut as a director in 1961 with L’assessino. But Petri was not only concerned with cinema.
His youth had been spent as a militant in the Italian communist party. In spite of his life-long interest in social and political questions, he quit the communist party when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956. In the recently published book Elio Petri and Italian political cinema (Mimesis Edizioni, 2015), Petri responds to the question of whether he was still a communist in 1979. «To be completely honest, I can’t say that. Not because the communists themselves don’t consider me a communist, but because being a communist, with my earlier experiences as a militant, would be to accept the decisions of the party – and thereby undermining any subjective opinion of your own, for the sake of the party. That means to live, minute by minute, for the party and on the party’s conditions.»
Petri was too subjective for that, too independent, and perhaps in time, also too conservative. And if we also consider that the Italian communist party was the largest in Europe at the time, it gradually came to represent the institution of power that Petri himself wanted to unveil and dissociate himself from. Petri says in the book that he began making movies because it was an art form that belonged to the people and which therefore, by definition, was opposed to the alienation of the individual by power. This is how film became a political tool for Petri in the struggle to free man from the oppression of the institutions of power.
Just as Leonardo Sciascia was among the first to put a name and an address to the mafia, and showed the world how crime reached far into state, church, the business classes and the nobility, among farmers and village workers in Italy, Elio Petri was the director who showed how the institutions of power alienated the individual. The best example of this is his above-mentioned film Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion from 1970, which earned him an Oscar the same year.
Power and powerlessness. While Pasolini in his newspaper article «I know» in Corriere della Sera in November 1974 proclaimed that he knew the names of those responsible for the massacres in Milan, Brescia and Bologna, but lacked the evidence, the opposite is true in Petri’s Investigation. As in Kafka’s parable «Above the Law», Petri shows how the guilty ones are above any law, and thereby above any suspicion. In the film, Petri not only reflects on how political and non-political crime – legalized and institutionalized – are growing closer, and thereby reducing any guilty person to an innocent one, but also how power games are alienating.
With its references to Kafka’s The Trial, Petri’s Investigation is an outstanding thriller, and represents one of the foremost examples of political cinema from this period. The action is relatively simple, and mainly follows a police inspector (Gian Maria Volonté) who murders his mistress Augusta Terzi (Florinda Balkan), but walks. The question of guilt is central to the story, just as with Pasolini and Kafka. The difference is that the question is thematised through play and the father-child relation. Besides Ennio Morricone’s at times slightly surreal music, the infantile play between the police inspector and his mistress, and later between the inspector and his colleagues in the police, is what drives the storyline. Already in the opening sequence of the film, the question of guilt is made clear: Through a series of flashbacks, we see how the police inspector, who has recently been made responsible for political security, interrogates his mistress as if she was in prison; photographs her as if she was evidence in a murder case; provides information that reduces her to a child who obediently follows her father’s orders – until she points out that in fact, he himself is the child. She teases him by asking how he is going to murder her this time, thereby breaking the rules of the game. He murders her in a way that cannot, in this context, be described as anything but a «patricide». Then, as if to cleanse his conscience, or like a child who wants to be found out and punished, he plants the evidence, hoping to get caught. In this way, the game and the game of power with his party and party colleagues continue. When all the evidence points to him, he withdraws to his home, loosens his tie and has a dream where he admits his guilt. But instead of judging him, his colleagues merely pinch his cheek, like a child who has not proven himself worthy of his good father until admitting his guilt.
Alienation. When the police inspector awakes from his dream and sees the police arriving, events will unfold in reality like they did in his dream. As opposed to Josef K., who confronts the law in The Trial, he is above it. By erasing the line between dream and reality, guilt and innocence, alienation and freedom, Petri finally reduces the institution of power and the persons to a state of infantilism, which is exempt from any question of guilt and above any suspicion. As such, Petri not only picks up the thread from the social and political engagement of neo-realism, but goes further in his quest to reveal how power games are alienating. The choice of Gian Maria Volonté (1933-1994) for the role of police inspector was probably not coincidental. Volonté had not only been successful in Sergio Leone’s film For a few dollars more (1964), but was a political activist known for his radical leftist views. Volonté became one of the most sought-after actors in Italian political cinema. Apart from Investigation, he also acted in several other political films from the same period. In many ways, Volonté became the face of Italian political cinema, and is a character you would do well to familiarize yourself with through some of the films screening at Cinemateket in Oslo this weekend.
This essay is based on a speech held on Italian
political cinema April 2016 at Cinemateket in Oslo.