Director Francesco Rosi Takes Lino Ventura Into Darkly Exquisite Places in 1970s Italian Classic 



One needn’t be well versed in the Italian political scene of the 1970s in order to appreciate master filmmaker Francesco Rosi’s Illustrious Corpses (Cadaveri eccellenti), but it would certainly help.  Forget “ripped from the headlines”, this, with its chanting mobs and large angry protests, has every evidence of “ripped from the streets”.

That, though, is merely the background texture of this most exquisitely crafted high-end city-spanning murder mystery.  Lino Ventura stars as Inspector Amerigo Rogas, yet another of the actor’s long lineage of intensely baggy-eyed trench coated detective roles.  Someone is picking off the most prominent judges in Palermo, and Rogas is assigned to the case by the beleaguered Chief of Police (Tino Carraro).  The professional threats that come with the assignment are courtesy of the downhill roll of paranoia initiated against the Chief by the wholly imposing and powerful Security Minister (Fernando Rey), who makes it very clear that “heads will roll” if this doesn’t resolve to his satisfaction.

The question then becomes, what constitutes the Security Minister’s “satisfaction”, and to what ends?  This is not in any way lost on Rogas, who’s investigation soon takes him down a path of high level institutional corruption.  Attempts are made to quell him, but once a Leftist journalist (Luigi Pistilli) gets involved, he can’t back away from the unfolding truth.

Illustrious Corpses, though procedural in plot and 1976-contemporary in outlook, is every bit the immaculate, dark, art house slow burn.  Of all of Rosi’s acclaimed pictures (including 1962’s Salvatore Giuliano and the Palme d’Or winner of 1972, The Mattei Affair), this is one of his most appreciated.  The adoration is entirely justified, though admittedly my own first viewing proved more trying than I’d typically care to admit.  I chalk that up not to the very deliberate pacing amid a consistently heavy atmosphere, but its investigative procedural nature, which is fused with nuanced layers of Italian real-world politics, the unexplained details of which were lost me.  Which is okay; it simply means that Illustrious Corpses is asking more than I was prepared for.  There’s always next time.  Though, truth be told, procedurals are not high on my list, though I understand that that is the very element of this film that most viewers would latch onto.

Rosi’s framing and cutting are impeccable here, making supreme use of the Old World architecture and statuary that adorns so many of the frames.  This entrenched classicism contrasts boldly with the neighboring, bland, modern-day structuralism, insisting not only on a mental contrast excersise, but an uneasy comparison, as well.  Was the world of “back then”- i.e., the gone world of the many centuries-old corpses viewed, happened upon, and even communed with throughout the film- that much different?  The fact that Rogas is told from the outset that the first judge killed in the film visited the ancient catacombs to psychically learn the mummies’ many secrets is a reminder that dirty deeds and dire corruption are nothing new.  Whatever the old judge gleaned during his final silent visit brought tears to his eyes.  Then he walks outside and gets shot.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ Blu-ray edition of Illustrious Corpses is a very welcome addition to the world of high definition physical media.  Despite the film’s reputation, it hasn’t previously been among the easiest to find entries in respected World Cinema.  Rosi’s film is a ponderous and largely non-verbal one, all the more ideal when it comes to star Lino Ventura.  It’s valid to speculate that Illustrious Corpses’ delicate, brilliantly staged darkness is largely responsible for the film’s absence for stretches, particularly on home video, which historically doesn’t take well to low lighting.  Rectifying this, KL’s disc utilizes a recent restoration overseen by the Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory and The Film Foundation, with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.  (Thanks, George and Mellody!)

In a cast brimming with Italian greats of the screen, this is ultimately the story of one guy quietly barking up a very dangerous tree.  This in a town where marble statues seem easier to come by than trees.  That said, along way we spend time with the likes of Marcel Bozzuffi, Paolo Bonacelli, Alain Cuny, Maria Carta, Anna Proclemer, Paolo Graziosi, Charles Vanel, Max von Sydow, and a cat and a dog.  

On hand to tell us all about it in his trademarked soft-spoken demeanor is British directing iconoclast and professed Rosi fan Alex Cox.  Cox tends to go a bit intermittent in his speaking, allowing just enough quite between statements to be noticeable.  He often makes up for it when he does speak, though on this track he does lapse into inquisitive play-by-play mode a bit too often.  Cox, though, is always knowledgeable about the films he chooses to comment over, and is always worthy of our patient attention.

Another thing about Illustrious Corpses is that it’s close but not quite “exquisite corpse”.  Exquisite corpse, of course, is an abstract parlor game credited to surrealists in which a body is sketched piecemeal by partipants without knowledge of what the others have drawn.  The resulting “corpse” is a kind of Freudian Frankenstein’s monster, there to amuse, repulse, and perhaps inform us of ourselves.  Inspector Rogas lacks the luxury of deriving any amusement from his cobbled findings, though bodies can and will pile up.  For us, there’s an illustriousness; for him, just corpses.