Sunday, November 28, 2010

THE CONTEXT (Cadaveri Eccellenti, 1976)

You'll find Francesco Rosi's paranoid epic on Netflix under the utterly unassuming name of The Context, which turns out to be a literal translation of the original title (Il contesto) of the Leonardo Sciascia novel the film is based upon. The novel itself is available in English as Equal Danger, while the film may be better known to English-speakers as Illustrious Corpses. Rosi's intention, signified by his choice of title, may have been as much surrealist as paranoid, but whatever its meaning in, er, context, Cadaveri Eccelenti is Italy's answer to the great American paranoid thrillers of the Seventies, touching the same themes of conspiracy, surveillance and frame-up, only with more urgency, portraying a nation on the edge of the abyss.

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.

If Cres is the killer, then there's one more likely target, now the chief justice of Italy. Rogas has a hard time arranging a meeting, but notices that the judge (Max Von Sydow) has been meeting with top political and military leaders. Finally granted an audience, Rogas is subjected to a disturbing harangue. When Rogas suggests that Cres may have been wrongly convicted, the judge proclaims that "judicial error does not exist," and compares the judiciary to the priesthood. Their decisions are always right the same way that priests, no matter how corrupt, convert the bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ by virtue of their office. Worse, in our chaotic times exemplary convictions and punishments are useful regardless of their justice. The judge invokes the Roman concept of decimation, literally the killing of every tenth man to punish a military unit for cowardice. Modern society, torn by crime, labor conflict and political terror, could stand such a decimation. The minimal implication is that Cres's innocence is a matter of indifference to the judge. Can we and Rogas infer more? Is another kind of decimation under way? Is Cres really the killer, and if he is, is he only pursuing his own agenda, or is he an instrument, willing or not, of higher powers? The more that Rogas sees criminals and judges, conservatives and communists, mingling together, and the more that he takes advantage of the surveillance technology that initially disgusts him, the closer he comes, if not to the truth, than to mortal peril....

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.

Unfortunately, you don't get the full effect from The Context since Netflix is streaming a fullscreen version of the film, but you definitely get the idea. The English dub also means that no actor speaks in his own voice except for Max Von Sydow, who apparently performed his role in English on the set. I missed the gravelly voice Ventura had been given in English for Three Tough Guys, but since his performance here is often pensively passive and effectively anxious, befitting a man who knows he's going in over his head, it comes through regardless of the dubbing. Ventura became one of my favorite actor once I saw him in such French classics as Army of Shadows, Le Deuxieme Souffle and Classes Tous Risques, and Rosi's film, even in its compromised presentation, didn't damage his standing. Von Sydow nearly steals the show, however, with that one chilling rant, which should go down as a defining moment of Seventies cinema. As for the soundtrack, Piero Piccioni provides suitably menacing music, while the film manages to make an Astor Piazzola tango sound vaguely threatening. Context is everything.

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.

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