Different Strokes: Illustrious Corpses

“The Truth is not always revolutionary” – does Francesco Rosi’s ILLUSTRIOUS CORPSES demonstrate that true cinema is revolutionary?

Hannah Clarkson:

A man walks in near-silence down a monastic corridor of arches and quietness, decadent cadavers bearing sole witness. Moments seem like days as he exits the archways and crosses the street to the stone wall opposite, where he will meet his murderer’s bullet, the surprise written across his face when death suddenly snatches hime. He is the first, but by no means the last victim in this violent yet strangely genteel thriller by Italian director Francesco Rosi. ILLUSTRIOUS CORPSES (CADAVERI ECCELLENTI) is quietly monumental, an immaculate example of the political cinema that Italy does best. Adapted from the novel ‘Il Contesto’ by Leonardo Sciascia, it not only captures the fractious atmosphere of the time but prefigures the kidnapping of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade two years later. Rosi spins the subtly intertwined threads of his country’s corrupt politics with a grace which threatens to unravel the fraying cover of peace with its violent delicacy, as a painfully slow-burning tension is juxtaposed with a rapacity of events which leaves all sense both whirling and secure.

… long tracking scenes and elegant forays into black and white turn with the cogs of his mind …

Lino Ventura is the perfect gentleman as Inspector Rogas, maintaining integrity to the last as he investigates the murders of several Supreme Court Justices, in an unpredictable game of Cadavre Exquis which meanders through substrata of conspiracy and deceit. As long tracking scenes and elegant forays into black and white turn with the cogs of his mind, we see Rogas often alone, condemned to the contamination of lies and corruption as the toll of those he can trust is slowly diminished and the state funerals of illustrious corpses march solemnly past.

Beautifully filmed and wonderfully sensitive in its understanding of the political circumstances surrounding it, ILLUSTRIOUS CORPSES possesses a violence which is subtle and undermining rather than loud and forthright, and which is tempered by a humour and style which is typical of the great director, but by no means predictable. The last scenes are as beautiful as the first, as Rogas meets with the Secretary-General of the Communist Party in a museum, in imperial profile alongside the sculpted busts of past emporers and leaders. Both men are illustrious, admired or despised for achievements which are soon to be past. Justice and peace, it seems, come at a price. But while, as the Communist vice-secretary utters in the closing words of the film, ‘the truth is not always revolutionary’, Rosi proves that true cinema is.

Steve Williams:

‘The truth is not always revolutionary’ – Francesco Rosi’s cine-inchieste films deal with the truth, and with Salvatore Giuliano his approach was considered revolutionary in cinematic terms. ILLUSTRIOUS CORPSES is not: it marks the start of the decomposition in this director’s body of work.

The use of colour and contrast in ILLUSTRIOUS CORPSES is one of the stronger aspects of the film. Rosi’s turn to metaphor is not. The opening scene, filmed in Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs, is impressive but this is perhaps due to the setting more than anything else. The mummified corpses of Italy’s great and good clearly signify Italy’s corrupt and rotten power structures. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really get any more interesting after this.

Rosi’s source material here is not the real life events to which he usually turns, as with the rest of the films screening at CFF this year. In adapting Leonardo Sciascia’s novel, Equal Danger, Rosi compromises the cinematic principles he has established in his previous films. He captures the mood of troubled times in the country in the late 60s and 70s without fully exploring them. In a more conventional narrative structure there is now a moral agent, in the shape of Rogas, with whom the viewer can identify. There is little of the ambiguity of Rosi’s previous works, where often those in power, be it politicians, mafia or local businessman, are morally and physically indistinguishable. Max von Sydow is towering and demonic in his portrayal of a High Court judge, Fernando Rey persuasive as the charming Minister of Security; however, characters like this do not exist in real life.

There is an inevitably about the film’s events, which produces a sensation of powerlessness and resignation in the audience.

Furthermore, the personal life of one of the characters encroaches for the first time into a film, albeit briefly. Rosi had previously stated that he made films not about his characters lives, but about how they act in a public life. This is another point where Rosi crosses his own self-drawn line, and not in a progressive manner. Of course Rosi should be allowed to develop his aesthetic. That he chose to do it here at a time when the Red Brigades terrorist group and the shadowy Operation Gladio were active in Italy is surprising. Stefan Aust cast aside his own perceptions to produce some powerfully incisive and objective work in relation to the similar Baader Meinhof group in Germany. If you can imagine the film STAMMHEIM’s court room scenes, with a morally evasive prologue filmed by Rosi, then you get a sense of the film Rosi could have made at this time.

As a result, we get a film which is loosely engaging in a dramatic sense, but which is disengaged from the civic perspective of the investigative style he had developed. There is an inevitably about the film’s events, which produces a sensation of powerlessness and resignation in the audience. It also falls prey to being conspiracy theory friendly. The reality here is not interpreted – it is dramatised, romanticised even, and the cinema loses one of its more potent political voices at a time when it needed it most.

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