As any follower of the filone knows, the priest is a common figure in the giallo. More often than not he turns out to be the killer; even if he isn't he's normally a prime suspect / red herring.
Gialli killer priests can by and large be divided into two: those who are genuine the genuine and those who are impostors. Given the cultural landscape, we might suggest that real killer priests were more often the product of Communist filmmakers and impostors the product of Christian Democrats, in broad line with the the post-war division between the two groups and their supporters.
Undoubtedly another condition, necessary if not necessarily sufficient, was box-office potential, of whether taking the more exploitative option when it was correspondingly more likely to be the subject of censure – not necessarily a bad thing, if there's no such thing as bad publicity – and the censor was a risk worth taking.
In all these terms L'Arma, l'ora, il movente is something of an oddity.
Its victim is a priest, Father Giorgio. And, indeed for a time in which the film follows the police detectives Franco Boito (Renzo Montagnini) and Moriconi as they attempt to establish the exact motive for his murder – they quickly think they have established the weapon and the hour, as per the title – it seems that he will be also the only one, more in lines with the classic tale of raciotination than the contemporary serial murder thriller. Furthermore Further Giorgio doesn't quite fit into any of the taxonomies outlined above.
For, unlike the detectives, we're immediately made aware of possible motives for the priest's murder in that he's been carrying on with two different women, Giulia (Eva Czemerys) and Orchidea (Bedy Moratti), both of whom he has just tried to break up with – in Giulia's case with an evident lack of success, seeing as they then make love. For, as Father Giorgio's self-flagellation attests, he's also deeply troubled by these sins of the flesh and betrayals of his priestly vow of celibacy.
Priestploitation? A serious comment on the situation of the priesthood in an increasingly secular society? Or, as seems most probable, a bit of having things both ways?
But, just in case these two female suspects and their motives are insufficient we've also got an ex-convict gardener with anger management issues, who had earlier threatened the priest and generally seems to have a habit of popping up out of nowhere; a fortune teller whose readings of the tarot often seem suspiciously accurate in their foretellings; the potentially jealous husband; the resident anti-clerical and, above all, Sister Tarquina (Claudia Gravy).
Suffice to say that some of them are eliminated from the enquiries by dint of being eliminated themselves.
The boy who saw too much and is thus threatened with symbolic castration?
The boy who is an orphan and thus has unresolved Oedipal issues?
Not the sort of thing you want to hear in a giallo
The only one who is not a suspect is the sick orphaned child who lives in the convent, Ferruccio (Arturo Trina). For he saw the crime being committed. Unlike him, however, we don't know who did it – assuming, that is, he knows for sure, would tell Boito the truth if he did, and be believed by the detective, given that with his enthusiasm for reading Diabolik and company any such information could easily be construed as the workings of an overactive imagation.
Though featuring the occasional mistep by way of an awkward zoom here or lowest common denominator moment of bumbling cop comedy antics there, the latter also foregrounding some nuns in the shower type material – cheap exploitation or the detailing of quotidian convent life? – Francesco Mazzei's direction is essentially solid and occasionally downright stylish.
A shock zoom that doesn't convey anything beyond shock to the viewer, since Ferrucio is already aware of the animal mask.
One moment that comes to mind here is the terrified Ferruccio's flight from his attic hideout after witnessing the murder, where a display of stuffed animals assumes a nightmarish quality through extreme close ups, zooms and random handheld camera movements. While the effect is reminiscent of a similar stuffed animal attack scene in Jesus Franco's Count Dracula it works a whole lot better because in context it can be read as Ferruccio's imagination understandably running riot.
Part of the stuffed animals come to life moment, which works intersubjectively
Another is the way in which he introduces the priest and the suspects and then, later, emphasises Boito's entry into the group as the priest's replacement as compromised voice of male / patriarchal authority through the tellingly constructed al fresco dinner table sequences. Though the characters are arranged all around the square table, the way Mazzei pans from one to the next and back again makes it seem like they are all in a line with the priest and detective occupying the central position to emphasise the Last Supper type iconography.
Casual chat, or something more significant?
More generally, Mazzei shows an eye for the little details, making the film the kind you can watch again once the issues of guilt and motivation have been revealed, and a good understanding of the mechanisms of suspense and shock alike, with long build ups that don't necessarily have any murderous payoff and occasional unexpected moment of violence, most notably a graphic throat slashing in which the killer knife suddenly penetrates the frame and then, a split second later, the throat of their victim.
The all-seeing eye?
The writing, courtesy of Mazzei, Mario Bianchi, Bruno de Germino, Vincio Marinucci and Marcello Aliprandi, presumably in that basic idea to extended scenario to dialogue specialists type manner, is not quite as accomplished.
In particular, there is little sense of the amount of time that elapses in between episodes, as when the proprietors of a restaurant are alive and well in one scene and dead through an accident in another shortly afterwards with their place showing signs of longer-term abandonment.
This is somewhat curious since time also proves very much of the essence in another, decidedly more specific way. If the specific device featured might feel a bit old – I won't say any more – it works because of that aforemetioned self-referential aspect, with the filmmakers also later throwing in a classic locked room mystery subplot along the lines of S S Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case (one of the first English language mysteries to be translated into Italian in the earliest years of Mondadori's i libri gialli) or the attemped murder of Signora Wardh, she of the The Strange Vice.
Featuring solid to impressive work from the entire cast and crew – Carlo Rambaldi provides the effects, Francesco De Masi the score – L'Arma, l'ora, il movente is a giallo that deserves to be better known.
[The film is available for download from Cinemageddon, complete with English-language fansubs]