Elio Petri is best known in the United States for his high-fashion thriller La decima vittima/The Tenth Victim (1965). But the director made his biggest impact in Europe with a series of political films in the í70s, starting with Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto/Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion (1970), a commercial hit and an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. The Harvard Film Archiveís Petri retrospective, which opens tonight (May 29), will enable you to decide for yourself how well Petri unites the roles of bourgeois stylist and filmmaker of political engagement.
To say that La decima vittima (June 8 at 7 p.m., June 12 at 9 p.m., and June 17 at 9 p.m.) is a key document of the Pop cinema of the í60s (along with Richard Lesterís Help!, Joseph Loseyís Modesty Blaise, and a few others) is to indicate the filmís limitations. Set in a future where citizens vie for cash prizes in a lethal " Big Hunt, " the film pits Marcello Mastroianni (hair close-cropped and dyed ocher) against Ursula Andress (all Amazon outside but a traditional girl at heart). As weightless and as cagy as the unsecured wisps of fabric the costume designer comes up with to hide Andressís bust, La decima vittima is a catalogue of futuristic interior designs against which the actors enact Petriís frosty parodies of consumerism (what might be taken for a prescient attack on reality TV proves that the concept was already boring in 1965).
Un tranquillo posto in campagna/A Quiet Place in the Country (1968; May 30 at 9 p.m., June 9 at 7 p.m., June 12 at 7 p.m., and June 13 at 9:30 p.m.) is an anything-goes mad-painter movie with some good visual ideas floating in a gauzy atmosphere of meretricious waste. The best scene is a nightmare in which spooky disruptions to the painterís studio escalate into a holocaust of toppling work tables and paint splashing through the air. The intricate patterns add little to the simplicity of the Roger Corman horror films Un tranquillo posto resembles.
Petri widens his exploration of madness with Indagine su un cittadino (May 29 at 7 p.m.), a critique of the authoritarian mindset. On the last day before his promotion to chief of Political Intelligence, the young chief of Homicide (Gian Maria Volonté) kills his mistress (Florinda Bolkan). He then plants clues to incriminate himself while using his own authority and prestige to dissuade witnesses and investigators from acknowledging his obvious guilt. Done in packed, nervous, liquescent close-ups, the film boasts a brilliant Volonté performance, imaginative décor (Bolkanís lush Art Nouveau pad; huge blow-ups of fingerprints hanging as if in an avant-garde exhibition), and a mad Ennio Morricone score.
Intellectual cinéastes have a tradition of being suspicious of the kind of political thriller Indagine su un cittadino represents. In Jean Eustacheís 1973 La maman et la putain, Jean-Pierre Léaud reads a rave review of a Petri film out loud in a derisive tone that highlights the contradiction between the subversiveness of Petriís message and the ease with which the mainstream accommodated it. The question movies like Indagine su un cittadino raised on their original release continues to preoccupy many: how can a commercial film present a political statement in a way thatís also political formally?
Depending on your answer to this question, itís either to Petriís credit or to his disgrace that his political cycle culminated in the obscurity of Todo modo (1976; June 6 at 7 p.m., June 10 at 9 p.m., and June 16 at 7 p.m.). The film is set in a hotel/hermitage where leading members of Italyís dominant political party gather to take part in spiritual exercises. Amid factional bickering, blackmail, and acts of mortification, the guests are murdered one by one. Even after reading the Leonardo Sciascia novel on which the movie is loosely based, I find Todo modo cryptic. Sciasciaís metaphysical puzzles and Petriís psychosexual obsessions add to the difficulty an outsider to the Italian political scene would expect in grasping a film thatís filled with satirical allusions to Italian politics. Still, I prefer the perplexities of Todo modo to the facile ironies of Petriís Pop phase, and there can be little doubt that the directorís most interesting period was that of his strongest commitment.