Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a savage satire on corruption, bureaucracy, and authoritarianism. Director Elio Petri concocted a work that picked apart the weaknesses and failures of Italian policing, merged with tendencies the powerful have towards wanting more control. It’s a clever use of Kafka-esque ideas, used within a very clear and specific context. This isn’t a pseudo-intellectual rendition of surrealism, this is a pointed and political work that remains relevant in Western society to this day.
The premise follows a police inspector who commits a murder and steers the investigation towards finding him guilty, in order to test whether he is above suspicion and whether his fellow officers would take action against him. It’s a dark film of grim humour. This is about murder and police overreach. The police can place themselves above the law. Yet they can also be incompetent. Biases and foolishness means they cannot see a suspect even when it’s obvious. Instead Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion presents bureaucrats playing as cops, unable to reach basic conclusions themselves. Even when something is presented to them obviously, they are too corrupt and afraid to make wild assertions. They live in a world of ass-kissing and careerism, not one where they actually have to hold people accountable. This also goes for the grubby alliance held by the inspector and the media, allowing him to shape any narrative he wants, few questions asked. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is perverse, leaving the truth as unimportant in the eyes of the authorities it presents. The crushing realisation that the system is ultimately useless is drawn sharply and clearly here.
However Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion goes beyond displaying police incompetence. It shows a greater rot. If a single smart officer holds enough power, he can act essentially unopposed. The fetishisation and perversion of power, specifically police power, is shown in a series of flashbacks with the murdered woman. Oppression is sexy. The film runs with fascist overtones, as our lead declares “repression is civilisation!” Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is centred on a political police department, treating people differently according to their political connections. Anti-communist sentiments and paranoia run through the film, as the police try to crush left wing movements. In this modern 1970s, a computer can now keep records on civilians. The monitoring here is shown in the context of oppressive overreach, yet today we are even further along this pipeline. In Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion our inspector embraces authoritarian tendencies, seeking to destroy and re-educate subversive elements of society. He wants to re-affirm the authority of the police, after they’ve been neutered by bureaucracy and weakness. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion plays two hands at once. It lays bare the failures of the police and also presents harsh authoritarian solutions as another evil. Balance does not exist, this is just a satire on societal failures across the board.
The film begins with silent opening credits, then some slow scenes with almost no dialogue. Instead these moments are dominated by the score. The music, by the legendary Ennio Morricone, is fantastic and like his collaborations with Sergio Leone it dominates everything when used. It sets a playful and confusing tone which smoothers the film like a warm blanket. It’s perfect for this disorientating work of confusion that has so many moving parts. The stylish shots use an assortment of angles, ranging from high to low, and plenty of oppressive close-ups as the camera is pushed right into the face of the characters. Like a lot of great Italian films from the 1960s and 70s, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a brilliant excess of both genre and style.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a very original crime movie with a lot of precise filmmaking and clever plotting. It dives into melodramatic absurdity and yet manages to firmly establish multiple critiques of the Italian police. The political wit is pertinent even today, and the satirical style creates something very entertaining by itself. It is so jet black that a form of despair does seep in, but Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is a gripping, substantial work of great merit.