Writer-director Elio Petri’s acclaimed and incendiary Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion opens in a posh neighborhood in 1970s Rome with a well-dressed and steely-eyed gentleman strolling toward an impressive-looking apartment building. As Ennio Morricone’s eerily jaunty soundtrack plays, the man opens the door onto a luxurious bedroom, filled with tapestries and jewels, with a frisky and attentive woman waiting for him. They banter, get into bed, and we don’t quite know what’s up, until he suddenly commits a gruesome crime. He methodically rearranges the crime scene and calmly calls the police.
We discover that the man is, in fact, at the head of said police department, which means he is the one responsible for solving the murder that he himself committed. The inspector hides his crime in plain sight and ups the ante by trying to pin it on innocent people, while taunting those around him with his pretty obvious guilt. His nonchalant assumption that he can get away with anything because of his unquestioned authority surely registered with American audiences when it was released in 1970—it won the 1971 Academy Award for best foreign language film. But it truly resonates in today’s debates about the public abuses of power in official channels and impunity for murderous police. The film has found a second life since it becoming available for streaming on the Criterion Channel last spring.
Italians in the early ’70s had reason to be skeptical about the relationship between state and law enforcement. Mussolini’s fascism was still in living memory. Defeat in the Second World War had been viscerally documented by Rossellini’s War Trilogy. Postwar neorealism cut cinema down to the bone; De Sica’s unflinching parables about desperation and poverty in Bicycle Thieves and the very moving Umberto D showed a battered country how the other half lived. He was criticized for “washing dirty linen” in public. Elio Petri, who died in 1982 at fifty-three, directed eleven feature films (as well as several documentaries and short films) through the 1960s and 1970s, showing deep concern for the working class and the dark side of power. Citizen Above Suspicion is his most celebrated work.
The unnamed police inspector, played with creepy poise by Gian Maria Volonté, has what Percy Bysshe Shelley called a “sneer of cold command.” He knows perfectly well that his elite position entitles him to take control of any situation. He badgers his underlings, dismisses anyone who doesn’t tell him what he wants to hear, and struts through the police station like it’s a stage. The police is a boy’s club, with male faces looming directly into the frame, and his fellow officers’ hierarchical instincts cause them to treat the inspector as the alpha simply because he acts like he is. The film argues that authority, and the standards of law that support that authority, is built on a performative, unaccountable assumption of power.
When the inspector gets promoted, he lays out his approach to his new position in no uncertain terms: “the difference between common and political felonies is dwindling more each day. It has almost disappeared.” Roaring and blustering like Il Duce, with aggressive gesticulations and proud pouts, he tells his crew to “memorize this rule: inside every criminal, a subversive may be hiding, and inside every subversive, a criminal may be hiding.” Conflating sex workers and bank robbers with protesters and dissent in general, he barks that these lowlifes have the ultimate goal to “overthrow the current social order” and punctuates his speech with an authoritarian motto: “repression is civilization!”
The pointed irony is that the inspector not only doesn’t care about any of these slogans about law and order, he consciously subverts them—he’s a libertine of sadism. At certain points, the inspector even name-checks Gabriele D’Annunzio, the hedonistic court poet of fascist Italy, along with the Marquis de Sade. In flashbacks, we see him cavorting with his willing mistress Augusta, who re-enacts various crime scenes as a form of kinky foreplay. The inspector snaps photos of her posing in various lurid positions, demonstrating how psychotically detached he is from conventional morality and the smug pleasure he derives from his own twistedness.
Roaring and blustering, the inspector tells his crew to “memorize this rule: inside every criminal, a subversive may be hiding, and inside every subversive, a criminal may be hiding.”
It’s not enough for him to get away with murder. The inspector plays a surreal cat-and-mouse game with the institution around him. He dares his fellow police to find him guilty by barely covering his tracks. He gets off on how invulnerable he is by simply because he is assumed to upright. The inspector says to himself at one point that “if you send an innocent man to prison in your place . . . then the fact that you’re above suspicion has not been proven.” He tries to pin his crime on an unsuspecting passerby, bullying him into becoming a part of the investigation until he decides he’s had enough fun and lets the poor man go, confused and terrified, back to everyday life.
The film makes the connection between masculinity and state power, showing how easy it can be for a man with unchecked authority to indulge his inner dictator. It also digs deeper, suggesting that roiling neediness and insecurity lie beneath the obsessive urge to dominate and control. The one time Augusta breaks her usual willingness to indulge the inspector’s weird fantasies, she accuses him of childishness, which stops him in his tracks, and he curtly forbids her to ever say that again. When he suspects that his mistress once had an affair with one of the scruffy radicals who have been tagging the city walls with revolutionary names and slogans, the inspector seizes the opportunity to vent his outraged manhood through torture and interrogation of an arrested protester.
Petri’s dizzying direction blurs the visual line between what is supposed to be taken for reality and what isn’t, which heightens the film’s moral gravity. The vertiginous visual style is there for a reason. As Evan Calder Williams writes in his Criterion essay about Citizen Above Suspicion, “a world of irresolvable contradiction deserved a contradictory cinema, pushed to where we can hardly tell if it’s the film that makes our world appear so distorted (film as expression) or the other way around (film as reflection). . . After all, it’s this work in which the filmmaker’s contagious blurring of world and figure, space and style, spreads beyond solitary experience into the rule of law itself.” The film disorients the viewer through narrative flashbacks and undefined spaces in order to show how it feels when the contours of reality are warped by a structure of power that is accountable only to itself.
Petri’s film ends on an ambiguous note. The inspector is slowly driven half-mad from his ability to blithely get away with murder and seemingly confesses the crime to a gathering of police officials in his apartment. His narcissism apparently gives way to self-incrimination. Maybe the inspector is more of a masochist than he lets on, and his sadism is the flip-side to self-loathing, forcing him to ultimately admit to his guilt. Yet even this is not what it seems.
In the film’s final mindfuck, the inspector’s confession is revealed to be a dream sequence, and the real-life police officials arrive at his apartment, seemingly to deliver the proper verdict. A quote from Kafka, who knew a thing or two about the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) absurdities of the law, fills the screen: “Whatever he may seem to us, he is yet a servant of the law; that is, he belongs to the law and as such is set beyond human judgment.”
The quote illuminates the underlying logic in the abuses of office that we’ve seen so often in the past few years, from trigger-happy policing to flagrant abuses of executive and legislative power. The whole point of having a police department and law courts is to be able to answer to human judgments, whether they come from ordinary citizens, journalists, lawyers, or elected representatives. It’s necessary in a democracy to hold the law and those who are entrusted to enforce it to a strong standard of democratic accountability. And yet we’ve all seen how tenuous the law can be when it’s expected to police itself.
Kafka’s quote illuminates the mentality of how those who are in positions of authority use it as an opportunity to indulge their worst instincts, especially when they sense that they are ultimately accountable only to themselves. It applies to the horrifying persistence of police violence over the past few years, and the codes of silence and institutional protections that allow various authorities to abuse, detain, and terrorize the people under their control.
A few years ago, I argued with a friend that the recent spike of racist violence—I think we were talking about Trayvon Martin, but it’s hard to keep track—was an unconscious response to Obama’s presidency. People were sublimating their umbrage at the first Black president by taking it out on the nearest vulnerable person of color. My friend suggested otherwise: no, he said resignedly, this stuff happens every day. We just hear about it more now. All these years later, I think he was right.
We saw the face of police impunity on that ordinary evening in Minneapolis last year when Derek Chauvin probably took for granted that he could get away with kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, in full public view with backup from his fellow police officers, because of the indemnity he probably assumed was granted to him by his position. The smirk of cold command on Chauvin’s face in the video suggests his state of mind.
Even though Chauvin was convicted, most police assailants aren’t. Our society isn’t even close to requiring well-trained police departments. When you watch Investigation of a Citizen Under Suspicion today, you can’t help but feel the inversion that Petri portrayed: in a repressive society, any ordinary person can become suspected of anything, but power puts a select few not only above the reach of the law but above suspicion by their powerful peers.