To some extent the Italian crime cinema divides into two.
On the one hand there are the art house films of directors like Francesco Rosi. These giallo-politico films emphasise dietrology. This means the study of looking behind events, or what lies beneath, hidden from all but the investigator. As such, these films have what Burch and Deleuze term a small form structure, in which an action, A, is required to disclose a situation, S, leading to a new action. The narrative revolves around what Deleuze terms the index, the small but revealing detail – in other words, the clue. In films like The Mattei Affair and Lucky Luciano politics is also a key concern, with the stance taken invariably an oppositional, anti-establishment, left-wing one. In these films architecture is often used symbolically, with a constrast being drawn between the clean, angular lines of modernist and brutalist styles and the hidden of the baroque.
On the other hand there are the vernacular films of directors like Umberto Lenzi. These poliziotteschi emphasise action. They have a large form structure, in which an initial situation, leads to an action, leading to a new situation. The narrative revolves around the binominal or duel – in other words, the protagonist’s need to catch his enemy in the act of committing a crime and then bring him to justice. In these films politics is less important, with the stance taken also being more ambivalent in critiquing left and/or right alike. In these films architecture is used more as something that is there to provide a backdrop for chases and shootouts.
But if we then place these two approaches as opposite ends of a continuum rather than as opposites, we come to films like this one.
The first issue for such films is whether they can manage to produce a satisfying cocktail out of their arthouse and grindhouse type ingredients.
The Iron Prefect succeeds here, such that it should have something to offer all but the most narrow-minded of enthusiasts in either camp.
The title refers to its protagonist, Cesare Moro. He was the police chief who was appointed to bring down the Mafia by Mussolini himself, using whatever means necessary.
The notable thing about Moro was that he himself was not a Fascist. Rather he was a pre-Fascist who implicitly agreed with both Liberal and Fascist Italy (and political theorists) that the state should have the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.
What this meant, as portrayed here, is a blurring of the boundaries over what counts as acceptable and unacceptable violence. A potential model here – or at least a film that came to mind – is Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, specifically the sequence in which the new French commander outlines the options (as he understands them) to critical and even hostile French journalists: Do you want Algeria to remain part of France? If so, then this follows.
Here this translates, without the need for a wider national appeal, as: Do you (the good Italian) want to defeat the, the Mafia (the bad Sicilian)? If so, then cutting off the water supply to a Mafia stronghold village until the women are compelled to respond – albeit after a show of piety and/or (misplaced) faith – follows logically.
Moro is played by Giuliano Gemma. His scar makes him recognisable, although he is otherwise obscured beneath a severe haircut and grey dye job.
Gemma’s heritage in the Italian western is however also invoked in a number of tropes – Moro as the Sheriff riding into the corrupt town to bring law and/or order; the Mafia as the figures of campanelosimo, or Bell Tower Loyalty over any wider, more abstract notions of nation state or party; through the set pieces of men on horseback riding across the rugged countryside; and through some man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do duels – this as one facet of the code of honour, of respect, that Moro and his enemies endorse.
Claudia Cardinale plays the Sicilian woman whom Moro tries to help. While her presence isn’t really necessary and was probably down more to the fact that she is Squitieri’s partner than anything else, her role is suitably unglamorous. It’s also refreshing that her character, a widow, doesn’t become Moro’s love interest, as one imagines would have been the case in a more Hollywood-like version of the story. Rather, we see Moro’s wife arrive with him in Sicily, but soon after being forced to leave for her own safety as she is attacked by the local / native women (where is feminism, that all women are in this together...)?
Some of the dialogue also nicely point to misunderstandings: To the Sicilians Moro is a Piedmontese, but Moro asks why when he is not from that province.
Ennio Morricone contributes a fine soundtrack, with his compositions sounding suitably like Mafia songs.
If all of this, making a quality film that is potentially acceptable to both audiences, is accomplished – as I hope has been conveyed is the case here – then the second issue is then one of finding an audience.
That The Iron Prefect was only recently released on DVD, after a large number of other Italian crime productions seems to further testify to its awkward position; it’s worth noting here that whereas Rosi films like Salvatore Guiliano and Hands Over the City are on the prestigious Criterion label, the likes of Lenzi’s Almost Human and Violent Naples are on cult labels.
Give it a go; you won’t be disappointed. Or, put another way: Why is The Godfather so successful? In part as it has an easy to follow narrative, with violent set pieces? In part because it is The Leopard meets King Lear?