An absorbing, resonant, at times near majestic whodunit, “Illustrious Corpses” is the Italian analog to Watergate-era conspiracy thrillers like “The Parallax View” and “The Conversation.” The movie, first seen here at the 1976 New York Film Festival, is at Film Forum in a new 4K restoration through Oct. 21.
As directed by Francesco Rosi, one of the most political of Italian filmmakers, “Illustrious Corpses” aspires to the metaphysical. The opening sequence, partially set to Chopin’s Funeral March, has an elderly gentleman pay a visit to the sacred mummies in a dank church catacomb and, reaching for a flower, fall from an assassin’s bullet — the first of many judges to be shot. “The mafia killed him,” one orator later announces at the judge’s funeral. “He was the mafia,” shout the youthful demonstrators in the street, thus laying out the movie’s particular logic.
“Illustrious Corpses” is based on the novel, “Equal Danger,” by Leonardo Sciascia, a Sicilian author who wrote often about the mafia, ultimately as metaphor. His afterword to “Equal Danger,” Sciascia calls it “a fable about power anywhere in the world.” Still, although Italy is never mentioned, the locations — recognizably Palermo, Naples and Rome — are scarcely allegorical.
By contrast, Rosi’s protagonist is something of an abstraction or a useful cliché. Tough, honest Inspector Rogas (the veteran roughneck Lino Ventura) is tasked with solving the first murder and those that follow. As he theorizes a culprit, an existential policier plays out against a background of strikes and demonstrations, under constant state surveillance. There are strong hints of unseen forces. Playing a judge, Max Von Sydow materializes as a version of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor advancing a theology of judicial infallibility.
In his 1976 review, the New York Times critic Vincent Canby called “Illustrious Corpses” “a dazzling example of fashionably radical Italian filmmaking — elegantly composed, breathlessly paced, photographed in the beautiful, drained colors of a landscape in mourning for the sun.” He also found the movie drained in another way, so broad in its “indictment of government” as to lack any real force.
In fact, made during a time when Italy had ample reason to fear a coup d’état, “Illustrious Corpses” is not only topical but quite specific in addressing a bombing campaign waged by the right-wing extremists to destabilize the country as well as the “historic” compromise by which the Italian Communist Party joined the Christian Democratic government. More explicit than the novel, the movie ends with a communist official inverting a quote associated with the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, “the truth isn’t always revolutionary.”
Casting contributes to the film’s sardonic gravitas. Along with Von Sydow, the French war horses Charles Vanel and Alain Cuny appear as a pair of judges and Luis Buñuel’s frequent alter ego, the urbane Fernando Ray, plays a duplicitous minister of security. Despite the youthful radicals massed around the edges, “Illustrious Corpses” is, as the title suggests, an old man’s world. The corrupt gerontocracy is disrupted only when Tina Aumont (the daughter of camp icon Maria Montez) makes a scene-stealing appearance as a witness to murder.
Through Oct. 21 at Film Forum, Manhattan; filmforum.org.
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