Lino Ventura (who despite the sound of his name acted primarily in French films) stars as Inspector Amerigo Rogas, assigned to investigate the assassination of a judge. The judge is introduced in an eerie credit sequence strolling through a crypt of mummified but presumably exquisite corpses, only to be cut down abruptly once he emerges into the daylight. The crypt has been a popular hangout for politicians for centuries, a crazy old priest tells Rogas, because the mummies make good sounding boards for men with secrets. The killing takes place in a highly charged environment, in the middle of a citywide garbage strike. His funeral is attended by political leaders and mafia dons. Outside, a politician's impromptu oration is heckled by young leftists. When the politician says that the judge was killed by the Mafia, the leftists yell, "He was the Mafia!" before the cops chase them away. The politician tells Rogas that the garbage strike is politically motivated and aimed at him personally. Relevant? Hard to say; harder yet when another judge is shot down, and then a third. Ballistics determine that they've all been killed with the same weapon.
Lino Ventura as Rogas
The case metastasizes before Rogas's troubled eyes, even as he tries to narrow it down to someone with a grudge. The three dead judges shared a jurisdiction for a time, and there are three free men who'd been sentenced to hard time by them. One of these, the pharmacist Cres, seems a very likely candidate, quite possibly framed by his wife for trying to poison her. He's gone off the grid, having clipped his face off all the photographs in his home. His photo is even missing from the government's records of him, and his best friend has a hard time offering a good description of him. But the more Cres falls into shape as the prime suspect, the more extra details complicate Rogas's investigation, making it seem as if the judge murders are part of, or at least somehow related to, some larger, menacing agenda.
Big Brother is listening: Max Von Sydow in The Context.
The surrealist "exquisite corpse" is a matter of blind men building an elephant, a collective production with little or no central organizing principle. Calling Sciascia's story an "exquisite corpse" implies a warning from Rosi that we should expect no closure from Rogas's investigation, no revelation of a monolithic conspiracy or power play, even though martial law or a military coup seems to be in the making in the film's apocalyptic scenario. Loose ends are inevitable as plots appear to ravel or unravel just beyond our notice. We never see the sniper, and we never see Cres except possibly as a distorted image in a mirror at a decadent party. Once we think we've figured out the conspiracy, presumed major players are eliminated. They may well have been major players, but there may be no master conspirator, no inexpendable person as events acquire their own murderous momentum. Cadaveri Eccelenti leaves us asking what's more disturbing: a secret power controlling socio-political convulsions or the absence of such a power amid continuing convulsions. The faceless Cres is a perfect metaphor for the nearly disembodied terror set loose on Italy.
Rosi sustains an atmosphere of dread and menacing immensity, dwarfing Lino Ventura with vast interiors and cityscapes. The director is a master of neorealist architectural expressionism, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphors, going back at least as far as his dramatic building collapse in 1962's Hands Over the City. In its staging of public spectacles and rituals like funerals, it may be Italy's closest analogue to the Godfather films, though it isn't really about the Mafia. Those Coppola-esque scenes give the story epic weight and heighten your sense of the national stakes involved in the killings and the investigation.
If ever a film screamed for the deluxe Criterion DVD treatment, it's The Context in its current form. I want to see Cadaveri Eccelenti in a proper widescreen, subtitled print someday, with all the support materials Criterion, which has done Rosi justice before with Hands Over the City and Salvatore Giuliano, can gather. I'll still recommend Context to fans of paranoid political thrillers, Italian crime movies, and Seventies cinema in general; it'll definitely whet your appetite for a more definitive presentation.