Elio Petri’s Farcical Attack on Fascism

There hasn’t been a film in the past ten years of my life that has piqued as much personal interest and appreciation as Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. 

It’s perhaps the perfect film. And perhaps the only film that is referred to as “Kafkaesque,” but actually merits the description. The film, like Kafka’s style of work, is simple, almost journalistic and almost entirely absent of any authorial excesses. Nonetheless remaining poignantly absurd and allegorical.

The story: a high-ranking police inspector is set off to solve a murder in which he committed. 

Working under Giuseppe De Santis in post-war Italy, Elio Petri was born of the neo-realist movement. Both filmmakers had similar principles, either taught down or shared: they were members of the Italian Communist Party, they were both understudies (De Santis worked under Luchino Visconti and eventually co-wrote Obsessione together in 1943), and both had a penchant for stories of the working class. 

What Petri adopted from those years was a kind of succinct style, one that couldn’t afford to be self-indulgent. His screenplay for Investigation is both sparse and bold. It takes chances few other movies in 1970 would, by keeping you guessing and by allowing you to fall prey to Gian Maria Volonté’s hypnotic performance as the anti-heroic lead, Il Dottore. 

I love the story because it’s writhing in anger at the political climate in Rome, while mocking it at its core. There’s an unfortunate trend of political television and cinema that is steeped in self-importance, the kind that hides behind its straight-facedness (see: House of Cards) or cleverness (see: Aaron Sorkin). It forgets, or simply cannot reach, the common viewer. It looks down on you with a toothy grin, as if to say “This is more than art. It’s politics.” 

Petri’s approach is different. It’s political theatre of the absurd, written like a long joke with a brilliant punchline. Allegorically similar to Louis C.K’s bit on “Of course…but maybe,” in which the premise is: Of course a high-ranking Police officer couldn’t commit a murder without due justice intervening…but maybe.

Despite his inherent practicality in telling a story, the sophistication behind Petri’s cinematic approach is contemporaneous even for its time. Petri once described his aesthetic:

“I never considered myself to be a literary person. At the best, I could have become a sociologist, or perhaps a psychiatrist, or even a zoologist, but never a literary person even if I have no problem with narrative writing. Basically, I’m more interested in general ideas than in aesthetics. Today, in my opinion, to choose the cinema as a mode of expression means to choose general ideas over aesthetic considerations.’ (Gili 1974: 29)

As humbling as this quote is, Petri’s definitive style is what really elevates this picture from a political comedy to an absolute masterpiece. His framing resembles a crossbreed between Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa and the camera movement is reminiscent of Luchino Viscont’s The Leopard. You can quickly see his influence on the works of Coppola, Polanski and Fincher.


What really sets the tone for the entire piece is Ennio Morricone’s playful score. His unique brand of weird defies every convention you’d expect in a political crime thriller. It’s this score you hear right at the top of the film which says to the viewer: you cannot peg this film in a simple genre or set of rules. Petri, time and time again, within Investigation defies the rules of cinema.

My admiration for Petri’s classic stems from that rebelliousness. His irate stubbornness to conform, whether to a political agenda or a cinematic niche, is what’s at the heart of his storytelling. The social status of movies today is either completely devoid or sits in a clever ivory tower or is so serious it forgets to laugh at itself. 

It’s fair to conclude that years working within the Communist Party, Petri experienced politics firsthand and on a grassroots level. He wasn’t just a satirist poking fun at the subject from a safe distance, he was entrenched in it. Through these experiences, it forged his vision with a different framework. His perspective was more eye-level, more within the working class. 

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion will stay with me for a long time to come. It’s smart, stylish, hilarious, provocative and so true it hurts. 

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