Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)

4 01 2014

Awhile back, I was deeply impressed by Elio Petri’s The Working Class Goes to Heaven , which while not earth-shattering, showed some hints of radicalism that was often separated from conventional narrative filmmaking in Europe at the time. This earlier effort feels a bit less complicated, it basically tracks a fascistic, disciplined, and ideal embodiment of police force. It’s political implications seem pretty cut and clear, especially when the nameless detective’s opposing figure is a young radical. However, as with the other Petri film, I think there’s a lot of (perhaps unintentional) stuff to unpack here. Yes, this is a well-crafted thriller and the surface of its political commentary is interesting, but I find the deeper I dig into Petri’s world, I start to find the most fascinating elements.


A nameless inspector visits a mistress. She playfully asks him “how will you kill me this time?” before the two engage in sex. The jarring foreplay becomes a reality in less than a minute. He cuts her throat, then proceeds to leave her apartment, intentionally leaving behind signs of his presence there. He arrives at the police station, and it becomes evident that the man has enjoyed great success in his profession. He’s been promoted from the head of the homicide division to the political division. He gives an impassioned speech where he cries for repression to held maintain the order of the public sphere. In the mean time, he begins investigating the murder of his mistress, with the belief that his place in the law also puts him above it.


On the surface, we have a film with a very explicitly stated idea: that the agents of law do not adhere to the law and thus, their power breeds absolute corruption. The inspector himself sums this all up towards the film’s conclusion: “[It’s] a disease I probably contracted from my prolonged use of power.” This is not the most revolutionary sentiment, but what many perceive as the charm of the film is that is able to be so critical of power but do it in an entertaining way. Sure, maybe it’s not actually that far from Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, but the main discussion of that film is whether or not it condones or condemns its toxic wielding of power. There is no question about it in Petri’s film, the protagonist is absolutely the villain. Some might say this is a problem with the film, it’s too didactic. I’m not inclined to disagree on this, but the film itself has a lot more to offer beyond its direct insinuation that state power is, well, bad.


In his essay on the film, Evan Calder Williams mentions that the lack of any female presence in not only Petri’s film but in other radical films of the period is a limitation and a problem. He’s absolutely right. The two Petri films I’ve seen have zero female characters with any agency, and while I acknowledge this as the problem it is, I find it saying something interesting in this particular case. The nameless inspector here murders his mistress, and one of the contributions to this act is his jealousy of her new relationship with a young radical, Antonio Pace. Pace knows the inspector is the murderer, but instead of being outraged, he seems almost gleeful. Upon recognizing him as an agent of the state, he begins to smirk. He’s not at all upset or distraught that he’s lost his lover, he’s ecstatic because her death is just more information to throw against the police state.


In this particular case, we can see why Pace and the inspector are so careless with their lover’s body. She is a charming enough character, but the film never grants us much beyond some flashbacks that just go to reassert that she’s kinky and critical of the inspector’s masculinity. The film comes down to a personal standoff between Pace and the inspector, their showdown has taken place on the body and blood of a woman, and neither particularly cares about said body’s destruction. I think there’s something to be said about this, because it insinuates that in the face of other oppressed groups, radical leftist men are just as likely to silent said voices as the state. This isn’t to say that I, myself am critical of the radical left, but instead of the men who constantly assert their status as such but only show interests in the institutions that affect them.


There’s actually other things to take away from the nameless inspector, like that he’s haunted by his inadequate masculinity or at least his inability to perform in the private. He is, after all, the most disciplined of figures but in the context of real human interaction, particularly affection, the regulated body and mind isn’t enough. In the film this ends up being represented as “haha the fascists are bad at sex” which sounds a little more trivial and more satirical. I’d hate to place this in the field of satire, though, because the word is often associated, to me at least, with uncritical liberal musings on culture. Here, we have an incisive critique of the police state, and toxic masculinity being a part of its opposition as well. This idea is sort of important to me, because it still seems relevant today. Yes, authority is bad, but as inspector himself says “Authority makes me the father and you the children” and the gendered power dynamic does not dissolve just because you’re a leftist.




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