Marcello Mastroianni as an antiques dealer in trouble in L’Assassino.
Following the decline of neorealism, the Italian cinema suddenly renewed itself both thematically and stylistically in the 1960s. The social criticism still came largely from the left, extending from the spaghetti western to satires on middle-class life like Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style, and chief among the influential new innovators were Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Rosi, Pasolini and Bertolucci. From this list, the name of Elio Petri (1929-82) is too often missing nowadays. A working-class Roman intellectual, Petri wrote trenchant film criticism for the Communist paper L’Unità and realistic screenplays. After the Hungarian invasion, he quit the party and made his directorial debut in 1961, reconciling his Marxism and his desire to reach a popular audience. His aim was to combine sharp political commentary, technical sophistication and star performances, and this he achieved with the political thriller L’Assassino.
The Italian cinema’s leading actor of the day, Marcello Mastroianni, gives a superb performance as Alfredo Martelli, an unscrupulous antiques dealer with a smart shop near the Spanish Steps, who one morning is picked up by some aggressive cops and accused of killing his wealthy sponsor and mistress (the beautiful Micheline Presle). Like a cross between JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls and Kafka’s The Trial, L’Assassino sees Alfredo being broken down by the good-cop bad-cop interrogation approach over a harrowing day and night. Responding to their questions, Alfredo slides in and out of flashbacks (a cinematic style then unfamiliar), exposing his ethical shortcomings, guilt and revealing the bad faith underlying middle-class Italian life.
The movie is a tour de force, restlessly shot in a disturbing monochrome by Carlo Di Palma, soon to emerge as one of the cinema’s greatest colour cinematographers. Petri’s collaborator was one of Italy’s greatest co-scriptwriters, the poet Tonino Guerra, the subject of a 50-minute interview on this Blu-Ray disc.
Before his death of cancer in 1982, Petri went on to make 10 substantial movies, the most famous (a companion piece to L’Assassino) being Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). It stars the leftwing actor Gian Maria Volonté, another regular collaborator, as a near psychotic homicide cop so convinced he’s above the law that he kills his mistress to test his theory. It won an Oscar as best foreign language film.