Commissioner Bonavia has hygiene-obsessed mafioso Lipuma release from the insane asylum where he has been incarcerated for the past six years knowing fullwell that Lipuma's first action once released will be to make an attempt on his former rival Dubrosio's life.
Indeed this is what Bonavia, who is pursuing his own personal vendetta against Dubrosio is counting on; he knows that there is no point in pursuing legal channels when just about the entirety of the Palmero administration and judiciary is in league with Dubrosio.
The introductory image – an unidentified hand groping around in the dark
Unfortunately for Bonavia, someone tips Dubrosio off, so that the only victims of the ensuing shoot-out are Lipuma and three of Dubrosio's hired guns – all conveniently from out of town.
Public prosecutor Traini is assigned to investigate alongside Bonavia, and soon comes to realise that his erstwhile colleague knows more than he is letting on.
But beyond this motives and allegiances remain obscure. Bonavia suspects that the idealistic young prosecutor may already be in someone's pocket or, if not, will soon be offered the chance to further his personal position at the expense of the people and the law he professes to represent without prejudice or preference, while Traini cannot be sure that Bonavia is not pursuing Dubrosio on behalf of one of his rivals. And even if they can overcome their mutual suspicions and differences, it is still uncertain whether there is anyone else they can trust.
Images of the figures behind bars recur throughout, creating a sense of the characters' entrapment and inability to escape their world
Confessions of a Police Captain is, quite simply, an excellent film that accomplishes everything it sets out to do: to wit to entertain, to inform – specifically about the collusion of civil and criminal societies in 1960s and 1970s Sicily around construction and development projects – and to convey a complex reality in an accessible way.
The film's three pillars are Damiano Damiani's writing and direction and the impressive central performances of Martin Balsam and Franco Nero in the roles of Bonavia and Traini.
The writing is of the quality where merely recording the actors reciting it would have been sufficient in itself for a less conscientious filmmaker. An illustrative sample exchange, taken from a point late on where Bonavia and Traini have each begun to covertly investigate one another:
“You never experienced that, right? You never thought that you were a kind of executor, looking after the interests of whoever happens to be in power?”
“A cop who's an anarchist. You're a living contradiction Bonavia.”
“Haven't you ever had any doubts about enforcing unjust laws?”
“It's not for us to judge the law...”
“... But to enforce it. Yes I knew you would say that. But let's say tomorrow the law stated that we had to use torture.”
“Don't be absurd.”
“Why? It used to be the law, it could be the law again. It's only a matter of principle. Then you would use torture if the law said so.”
“You're using an extreme example!”
“All right then, what's your limit? How much injustice would you stand for to satisfy the people we work for?”
“If you go on, I'll arrest you!”
“I was only referring to Rizzo's ideas...”
Bonavia puts up his hands to indicate his innocence of sedition, that he is only referring to Rizzo's ideas, in an ironic mirroring of a gesture earlier made by Dubrosio when one of his gunmen shot the selfsame union organiser.
If Damiano avoids more visible stylistic flourishes, he nevertheless expertly conveys a pervasive sense of confusion and distrust with his mise en scène with deep shadows and recurring use of bars as a motif, along with preferring to gradually fill in details rather than lay it all out for us in an obvious manner.
Thus, for example, we open with a shot of hands feeling along a wall in the dark, introducing the characters in the asylum without quite knowing what it is, who they are, what they are doing there or why. Likewise, the small, easy ignored or missed detail of another of the patients / inmates (for it is not clear that Lipuma is actually certifiably insane) requesting that Bonavia talk to him later assumes a deeper significance later as, when repeated on Bonavia's subsequent visit to the place with Triani it suggests that he has been there before. Triani thus gets the wrong clue for the right solution.
There is also an appealing lack of resolution to the whole thing that neatly provides an agreeable balance between the needs of the vernacular audience to see the bad guys receive some sort of punishment and of Damiano, as a politically committed filmmaker, to convey the ongoing struggle against organised, systematically endemic corruption and criminality. The individual hero prepared to take a stand for the good of the collective is similarly granted a degree of ambiguity: necessary, but also dangerous in what he implies.
As with The Most Beautiful Wife Damiani brilliantly captures the complexities and contradictions of Sicilian life and the difficulties faced by the Marxist filmmaker – as “organic intellectual,” in the Gramsian sense – in attempting to represent and reach a population brought up to understand that the well-being and honour of the family were far more important than any wider notions of class solidarity.
It is, we might say, Marxism's version of the free rider and prisoner's dilemma problems: If the benefits of political action will accrue to me because of my position as a member of a certain class why should I as a rational individual take the risks involved in this selfsame action that will bring them about, when they are considerable for me and mine? Alternatively, if these benefits only accrue to the loyal members of the party and its vanguard, isn't there then the risk of becoming another small, narrowly self-interested group like the others? (Francesco Rosi's Hands Over the City is also recommended viewing in this regard.)
The scenes where the is most clearly conveyed are the flashback ones involving Rizzo, the Communist Party Union organiser from the same village as Bonavia, whose valiant attempts to encourage his people to stand together against the mafia meet with predictable indifference and consequences.
The face of challenge and defiance – Rizzo
Rizzo also understands the rules of this world better than almost anyone else in the film. Having been shot by an unseen, unidentified gunman after publically challenging Dubrosio, the police do nothing. He thus lies bleeding, declining to be taken away until the mafioso and his men have departed, causing Dubrosio to lose face and transforming an apparent defeat into a kind of victory. (“That episode made Rizzo a hero, only being a hero isn't always an asset.”)
The PCI HQ, with its heroes and martyrs
The greatest shame of all meanwhile to the critics who rejected the film and others like it for being conventionally well-made, under the mistaken belief that radical form necessarily equated to radical content, while largely ignoring the question of whether such films ever possessed any wider appeal beyond their own circle.
Damiani, who started his directorial career in the neo-realist period with a documentary, La Banda d'Affori, and frequently blended left wing politics with popular genres in his subsequent genre films, including the seminal Zapata western A Bullet for the General, surely knew his audience better than these elitist fellow-travellers abroad.
A world of shadowy figures and relationships
The other key political issue related to all this, strange though it may seem, is dubbing versus subtitling. To explain: for a film to be accessible to the vernacular audience, it has to be in the vernacular, i.e. the language of the people. As such, it was better that Confessions of a Police Captain be dubbed than subtitled for international release, so that it might reach the widest possible audience beyond the art cinema ghetto.
It's also curious that critics didn't seem to be in favour of dubbing as a device for popular films even when it could have helped to show up the arbitrariness of the sound-image relationship in cinema and presumably thereby encourage a more distanciatiated approach to the text, or somesuch. Instead, reading reviews from the time, all we typically get are references to “bad dubbing”.
Why, one wonders, were the same criteria not applied to subtitled Italian films which featured post-synchronised sound even in the Italian? Why did no-one complain that in a Fellini film the voices weren't 'fixed' in the manner that these evaluative criteria imply that they ought to have done? Presumably Fellini's intentions were recognised, but then why was intentionality recognised and accepted when the talk elsewhere was of the death of the author and the ideologically regressive implications of auteurism?
The two leads make for a fascinating contrast: the domestic star and the US character actor. While it's a combination found in countless Italian films of the period, there's something more about the way it works here, that the two men are present for what they could bring to the project as actors rather than as just marquee names for the domestic and international audiences. That Balsam was a character actor (once remarking that “the supporting role is always potentially the most interesting in a film”) rather than an immediately recognisable and typed star name – even if a B-list one – means that you approach his performance and character without much in the way of presuppositions, while he clearly seems to have relished the opportunity to get his teeth into a more substantive role than usual. Nero again excels at taking what could otherwise have been a routine figure and going the extra mile in giving him a more complex characterisation (see also his compromised hot-headed alcoholic journalist investigator in The Fifth Cord, or his post-Death Wish vigilante with doubts in Street Law.)
Those familiar with Luciano Catenacci from his appearances in Lenzi poliziotti may be surprised to see him here in the role of Dubrosio. Though required primarily to be the sneering villain – with this also perhaps the area where the films and Damiano's limits are more evident, insofar as there's perhaps too much of a personal mano a mano element to his conflict with Balsam, leading to a corresponding de-emphasis on the political and business aspects – he again impresses as someone capable of holding his own against more widely acknowledged performers, even when saddled with an awkward looking hairpiece in the flashback scenes.
A number of other familiar faces – Calisto Calisti, Arturo Dominici, Marlilu' Tolo – round out the cast effectively, while Riz Ortolani's powerful, melancholy score is another asset.