It’s yet another masterpiece from the Italian director Francesco Rosi, adapting a fiction novel about a political murder conspiracy that is altogether too much of a good fit for the troubled Italy of 1975. Crime star Lino Ventura is the incorruptible detective investigating a series of killings of high-level judges, who begins to intuit that his superiors want the murders to continue. Dark and moody, Rosi’s picture is impeccably directed for a kind of nagging, uneasy suspense, with frightening hints that Ventura is being drawn into a bigger, more sinister frame. With Charles Vanel, Max von Sydow and Fernando Rey, and music by Piero Piccioni. The insightful audio commentary is by Alex Cox. The original Italian title is even more blood-curdling: Cadaveri eccelenti.
1976 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 121 min. / Cadaveri eccellenti; The Context / Street Date September 28, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Lino Ventura, Tino Carraro, Marcel Bozzuffi, Paolo Bonacelli, Alain Cuny, Maria Carta, Luigi Pistilli, Tina Aumont, Renato Salvatori, Paolo Graziosi, Anna Proclemer, Fernando Rey, Max von Sydow, Charles Vanel, Carlo Tamberlani, Corrado Gaipa, Enrico Ragusa, Claudio Nicastro, Francesco Callari, Mario Meniconi, Accursio Di Leo, Ernesto Colli, Silverio Blasi.
Cinematography: Pasqualino De Santis
Editor: Ruggero Mastroianni
Art Director: Andrea Crisanti
Original Music: Piero Piccioni
Produced by: Alberto Grimaldi
Screenplay by Tonino Guerra, Lino Iannuzzi, Francesco Rosi from the novel Il contesto by Leonardo Sciascia
Directed by Francesco Rosi
Kino Lorber continues to grace us with fine restorations of difficult-to-see European pictures, many not screened enough here in the states. The politically committed Francesco Rosi directed definite art house material, films so concerned with the state of Italy past, present and future that only a few of his shows connected in the U.S., like the highly emotional Christ Stopped at Eboli. His Salvatore Giuliano takes a scathing look at the intersection of brigandry, liberation warfare and American betrayal in wartime Sicily. And the searing Hands over the City indicts an entire city for ‘normalized’ corruption that prevents anything like decent public planning.
Another masterpiece about social disfunction, Rosi’s Illustrious Corpses would seem related to the Watergate-era phenomenon of the Paranoid Conspiracy thriller. In the U.S. the subgenre is best exemplified by Alan J. Pakula’s chilling The Parallax View. Engendered by the unending doubts and questions around the Kennedy assassinations, overarching conspiracies long ago became standard fare on every escapist-alarmist action-oriented TV show.
In the middle ’70s the notion of a secret government conspiracy was still considered idle conjecture, grist for divisive rumor mills. Rosi’s fictitious thriller seems altogether credible, as Italy was then in the grip of outrageous political crimes of every stripe — kidnappings, murders, large-scale anarchist banditry — much of it committed by criminal opportunists making use of media headlines and TV coverage. The splintered Italian government could never put together a coalition that wasn’t violently protested by some faction being shut out, with press on both the left and the right accusing each other of secret, illegal machinations.
As pointed out by audio commentator Alex Cox, although what we see on screen is obviously Italy, the film never identifies the country or locale. When ‘Rome’ is mentioned in the English subtitles, the actual Italian dialogue just says, ‘the big city.’ However, in a library archive we note that a giant map of Sicily is prominently displayed.
The pressure is on: Police Inspector Amerigo Rogas (Eurocrime veteran Lino Ventura) is tasked with solving the murder of an elderly magistrate, Procurator Varga (Charles Vanel of The Wages of Fear). When two more judges are shot dead in quick succession, the Security Minister (Fernando Rey of Belle de Jour) and the Chief of Police (Tino Carraro of Orgasmo) threaten Rogas’ job unless he gets results. But they offer no support, just disapproval that Rogas won’t agree with them that ‘leftist radicals’ are responsible. On his own Rogas looks for suspects that had a reason to hate the judges, but receives little or no cooperation from the public, which fears and distrusts all official authority. At Varga’s funeral, a blowhard orator (Corrado Gaipa) blames ‘the Mafia,’ but a crowd of students chant that he is the Mafia.
Rogas must take public transport to interview witnesses, while an elite group of government officials and military men move around in chauffeured cars, on undisclosed business with some of the same people. A white car belonging to one of Rogas’ superiors is seen leaving the scene of a killing, but the testimony of a bystander and a prostitute (Tina Aumont) is completely contradictory. The officials continue to round up random student demonstrators as suspects. Rogas predicts the next two victims, but is told they are already ‘protected.’ He also catches the Chief of Police lying about a visit to an important person of interest in the crimes, but can do nothing.
Doctor Maxia (Paolo Bonacelli of Salo) shows Rogas the apartment of the missing suspect “Mr. Cres,” and Rogas finds that all images of the man have been erased, even from Cres’s police fingerprint card. Hoping to locate this mystery man, Rogas slips into a party, where a well-known leftist celebrity immediately accuses him of persecution. The Security Minister is hobnobbing with the well-to-do Communist elites. The inspector then realizes that his own phone is tapped. Meeting with his publisher friend Galano (Paolo Graziosi), Rogas admits that he is convinced that some kind of right-wing plot is underfoot. The publisher sets up a secret meeting with the Secretary of the Communist Pary.
Beautifully directed, Cadaveri eccellenti is a dark, brooding exercise in political fear. In this Italy/Not Italy, right-wingers and Communists exchange witty insults at swank parties while the only honest cop on the case is met with hostility from all sides. Despite his status as a respected professional, Inspector Rogas’ ordeal is not all that different from that of ‘K’ in Kafka’s The Trial. Ordinary people simply won’t talk, perhaps fearing the government as much as the Mafia. His two suspects were once convicted by the judges in question… one (Marcel Bozzuffi) refuses to even look at Rogas and the other threatens violence.
Sort of a companion film to Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Exquisite Corpses gives Rosi a chance to paint a startling picture of Italian social dysfunction, where the law functions only for the convenience of a concentrated power elite. The top government men expect loyalty from Rogas but treat him like an annoyance — and perhaps a convenient tool.
The judges in question are elderly men that exhibit eccentric, even alarming behaviors. Vargas is introduced in his daily habit of ‘convening’ with mummies in the catacombs under a cathedral. An old priest insists that the rows of skull-faced corpses talk to Vargas. The grotesque mummies are definitely a thematic symbol. If they could speak, how many would scream, ‘I was murdered?’ Rogas finally manages to interview two of the judges, but neither take his warnings seriously. One (Alain Cuny) washes his hands obsessively, as if mentally disturbed and plagued with a Pontius Pilate complex. The other (Max von Sydow) is a closet fascist who publicly states that the government is failing. He also claims that judges are infallible, like the Pope … he argues that a Judge’s ‘wrong’ decision is still ‘right,’ the same way that a corrupt Priest is above censure. The priest may be wicked, but the sacraments he dispenses remain pure, inviolable.
The few colleagues that help Rogas are too wary to get involved in ‘political’ crimes. A police technician (Renato Salvatori) plays for Rogas a snippet of audio that might hint of a conspiracy by the Chief, but like everything else, it’s insufficiently conclusive for Rogas to act upon. The authorities deny than any electronic surveillance takes place without a bench warrant, yet the police offices are packed with surveillance technology that monitors phones on a vast scale, not just suspects in cases but troublesome political rivals as well. The police chief excuses the practice by saying that the tapes are all destroyed later.
Rosi’s direction is rigorous, clear-headed. Scenes are often composed of two or three camera angles, but the setups are ideal. Long lenses isolate people in the frame and play games with perspective. These telephoto views become disturbing: any of them could suddenly represent a view through a sniper’s gunsight. The foreshortened compositions limit Rogas’ access and cramp his maneuverability. He must repeatedly navigate very dark places, as if the case has been rigged to hide things, everything. Nobody tells him that other police units are conducting their own so-called ‘investigation.’ When Rogas pokes his head into a random room at police headquarters, he interrupts a violent interrogator threatening a dozen imprisoned students. Either they confess, or they’ll never be released.
Some visual embellishments function almost like special effects. One of the dead judges may have murdered a youthful male companion (or so it appears to me). When Rogas examines a B&W photo of the two together, we see a live-action version of it, in which the younger man looks very unhappy. After we hear the prostitute’s conflicting testimony about the street shooting, a ‘composite memory’ image of the killing appears, which has all the elements yet proves nothing. These visions tell us that Rogas will be prevented from acquiring any convincing evidence, that he’ll have to proceed by experience and intuition alone.
In a nice detail, Rogas realizes his phone is bugged when its ringing causes static interference on a nearby portable radio — it’s an update of the iconic ‘my phone is tapped’ moment in Abraham Polonsky’s 1948 Force of Evil. The most Kafka-esque of the visual effects occurs at the party when Rogas thinks he spies the elusive Mr. Cres: a zoom to a dark corner of the large room reveals a suspect face. But the eyes are blurred… Is the image a hallucination, or just a reflection in a flawed mirror?
Rosi makes good use of oppressive architecture. The police technician’s audio lab is a rented space in a vast underground bunker suitable for a science fiction setting. ↓ Building exteriors are giant blocks of uncaring glass and steel; some of them may be from the days of Mussolini. Even museums seem sinister when given this visual treatment. The landscape is hostile, either faceless bureaucratic towers or ancient monuments that seems to say ‘nothing has changed in a thousand years.’
In the end the specifics of the conspiracy remain an enigma. Rogas has theorized that his superiors have used the initial revenge killings to launch an all out slaughter of judges, and to blame it all on the radical students. As in The Parallax View Rogas is the pawn in a bigger game, manipulated by powers that have long since departed from any but a cynical, pragmatic view of their civic responsibilities. With their ability to control news announcements, it’s easy for those in authority to assign false motivations to the actions of men now dead. They’re just more mummies for invisible cat
Illustrious Corpses is not one of those frustrating excercises in nihilism where all the protagonists fail and the bad guys win, and the truth never comes out. It paints a rich portrait of a society in serious disarray. The casting of the Italian-born Lino Ventura is ideal, as his established Cop persona is one of unassailable integrity. We also like Rogas, a lonely guy who doesn’t shirk a thankless job. He’s the lone person willing to risk his neck to solve the crime, to find the truth.
That makes Francesco Rosi’s thriller somewhat comparable to Costa-Gavras’ “Z”, in which Jean-Louis Trintignant’s prosecutor is in the same position of chasing down ‘the truth’ for superiors perversely determined to suppress it. Without getting into specific cases Cadaveri eccellenti is a powerful portrait of an Italy in political distress. Today, almost every Western democracy shares at least some of the frightening social-political discord seen in Italy, 1975.
The Kino Classics Blu-ray of Illustrious Corpses is said to be a 4K restoration from the original camera negative. The film’s moody appearance sometimes leaves colors bright and sometimes not; in a great many scenes we must wait to see important details emerge from the darkness. It’s the kind of show that needs a very good presentation like this Blu-ray. It’s also best when watched in a darkened room. When the image is dark, we know it’s supposed to be that way.
The distinctive soundtrack is by Piero Piccioni. We hear a variety of his ‘sounds’ along with occasional ominous tones, but the music does not dictate the mood during suspense scenes. We are as unsure of what’s happening as is the ever-tense Rogas.
Alex Cox’s thoughtful, reasoned audio commentary dispenses welcome information and excellent observations; he’s really into this picture. The trailer included is a French version, an excellent cut that instills curiosity and more than a little dread. It makes use of an abstract ad design that was also seen on some posters, and is scary in itself: the judges already seem to be candidates for exhibition in a hall of horrible mummies. →
Illustrious Corpses made its U.S. premiere at Filmex in 1976, accompanied by its producer and star. That was the year I volunteered to rewind reels in the film prep room, run by the UCLA Film Archive. It was a good time — the festival was held in the brand new Plitt Century Plaza, which was partly incomplete; the projection was impeccable. The entire complex was torn down not 25 years later, wiping out a spectacular pair of theaters that gave us world-class presentations of Peckinpah’s extended Road Show print of The Wild Bunch, A Passage to India and the restorations of Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus.
Correspondent ‘B’ informs me that this United Artists also screened Illustrious Corpses at the Chicago and NY Festivals in 1976, but decided against distributing the movie domestically. I don’t think this played theatrical engagements in America until five years later; it had a two-day run at NY’s Thalia in July of ’81.
Kino is also releasing Francesco Rosi’s gangster biography Lucky Luciano, starring his frequent collaborator Gian-Maria Volonté. I haven’t yet seen it and will be eager to take it in.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox; French trailer, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 31, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson