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investigation of a citizen above suspicion

Elio Petri's 1970 'Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion' ('Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto') is both a scathingly sarcastic political pamphlet and a highly original character study of a psychopath. Its unpredictable plot and quirkily unsettling score by Ennio Morricone make this hard-to-find film worth a search.

The film is best summarized by its own motto, which appears at the end, a quote from Kafka's 'The Trial':

Whatever he may seem to us, he is yet a servant of the Law; that is, he belongs to the Law and as such is set beyond human judgment.

Essentially a satirical examination of this statement, the film reverses Kafka's perspective of the little man crushed by the Law, and instead focuses on the "servant of the Law", the citizen above suspicion. As such, the film provides an interesting counterpoint to Alan Pakula's paranoia trilogy.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

In the opening scene, a man murders his mistress, then calls the police to report the murder. However, the man, a great role by Gian Maria Volontè, is also the chief of the police's homicide department. In fact, he has just been promoted to head of the security forces. With supreme arrogance, he proceeds to deliberately scatter clues to incriminate himself - and then watches what happens, confident that his own authority will protect him. Who will dare suspect, let alone accuse him?

As the saying goes, 'power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. In this case, power shields, and complete power shields completely. Nobody is capable or willing to follow the obvious clues that lead to their own chief - raising the interesting question whether the hierarchy is so rigid that they are unwilling to accuse a superior, or if the sheer light of authority is so blinding that they simply cannot see it. (The latter interpretation is certainly the more Kafkaesque.)

That same evening he holds a furious speech for his new department that reveals the Fascist tendencies of the Law.

Underneath every criminal hides a subversive person. Underneath every subversive individual there hides a criminal. In the city under our control subversives and criminals have already spun their invisible web that we have to destroy. What is the difference between a gang that robs a bank and organized subversion, legalized and institutionalized? None. They have the same objective even if they use different methods. They want to upset the social order.

In a later scene, inspectors hilariously report on the number of political slogans that have been found on the walls of Rome. "Last year there were 3,000 writings for Mao, 10,000 for Ho Chi Minh, 1,000 for Che Guevara and eleven for Marcuse." It sums up the countercultural climate of the late '60s, when Marxists waved Mao's 'Little Red Book' against the Fascist pigs in power.

But if its political commentary sometimes seems dated, 'Investigation' gains depth in its exploration of the psychology of its main character. In flashbacks, his relationship with his nymphomaniac mistress is shown to have been one of sexual games of dominance, revealing him as a childish bully revelling in his own power. In fact, his motive for murdering appears to have been that she ridiculed his male capabilities.

The motives behind his megalomaniacal plan are left ambiguous, as both an assertion of his power, a twisted proof of his own exalted status, and a masochistic test of the very Law which he embodies. In that sense, he is testing himself, and one part of him does want to get caught and punished, like an emotional child desperate for moral stricture.

The climax of his twisted experiment plays on these different interpretations, resulting in a very convincing pathological case study. The strength of Petri's film is that at the same time it all adds to the punch of its moral and political message.

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