An old man, in a dark suit, inspects a row of dignitaries, removing his hat in their presence. Like him, they are formally dressed, but their dresses have seen better days. No words are exchanged, yet we feel an air of camaraderie. To say that the visitor agrees with the dignitaries would be going too far, because these characters have no eyes at all, only holes, pierced in the parchment of their skin. We are in a crypt, in Palermo, lined with the dead for a long time; most of them are wedged in niches, mummified but upright, as if they still had business to do. The old man, after paying homage, goes out on a beautiful spring day. As he stops to sniff a spray of white jasmine blooming on a wall, there is a gunshot and he falls to the ground. He joined the ranks of the missing.
Such is the unforgettable opening of “Illustrious Corpses”, a new copy of which will be screened at the Film Forum from October 8. The director is Francesco Rosi, born in Naples in 1922 and died in 2015 in Rome. Thanks to films like “Salvatore Giuliano” (1962) and “The Mattei Affair” (1972), he is honored as a maestro of political cinema. “Illustrious Corpses” was first released in Italy in 1976, during the anni di piombo (the “years of lead”), a period torn by social unrest and convulsions of violence. If the film dealt only with the troubles of its time, however, it would have aged and paled a long time ago; in the case, it comes from a frightening freshness.
The jasmine murder is just the beginning. The old man in the crypt was a judge; the next victim too, and the next one. It sounds like a case for Inspector Rogas (Lino Ventura), who suspects a personal vendetta – someone who has been wrongfully jailed, say, and wants to fight back against the law. But the membrane between the private and the public, in Rosi’s work, is forever porous, and Rogas becomes aware of larger and more obscure movements. Is it the roar of tanks massing in the streets, or is he imagining things? And is it crazy or wise to lie down in your car, with a loaded and cocked pistol?
It is an adult cinema, of a strain now unknown: threatening, oblique, without haste and quite serious. The source is a short novel by Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, who has used detective fiction to distill his contempt and despair in the face of the status quo. Rosi, close to Sciascia, preserves the chilling scene in which a senior judge (Max von Sydow) informs Rogas that the miscarriage of justice does not and cannot exist. The pronouncement of a sentence, argues the judge, can no more be set aside than the act of Holy Communion.
Yet “Illustrious Corpses,” despite its title, is more captivating than cynical or morbid, and Rosi is constantly on the alert for signs of life and change. So after a funeral procession passes through a town square, we linger, noticing the piles of garbage and the boys kicking a soccer ball. Later, Inspector Rogas wanders through the plants in a yard, picking and eating peas from a pod; as he talks to the owner of his lemon trees, the camera rises above their shoulders to observe the modern towers, stacked on the other side of an overpass. The new upsets the old; the puzzles are more numerous than the solutions; and a double murder takes place in a museum, with bodies slaughtered under ancient marble statues. Return to the realm of the dead.
The film wouldn’t be as plausible without the great Lino Ventura in the lead role. He was a wrestler before he became a star (his face still looks predestined), and the ingrained solidity of his looks deserves our instinctive trust. Hence the moral authority that he attributes to “Army of Shadows” (1969) as a supporting figure for the French Resistance; hence, in “Illustrious Corpses”, our realization that if Rogas, of all people, can become paranoid, then he must to be something rotten in the state; hence, most remarkable, the effect of an appearance of Ventura on French television, in 1965. Speaking calmly of his daughter Linda, “a child like the others”, who had a mental handicap, he asked no not pity but “justice and warmth.” A taboo was broken and the result was Perce-Neige (or “snowdrop”), an association that he and his wife founded the following year and which manages today thirty-eight centers for the disabled. If you are wondering whether celebrities can or should spread their fame for a serious cause, the answer is Lino Ventura. Despite Sciascia’s acute diagnosis of the ills of society and the discovery of conspiracies by Rosi, good deeds are always done, one way or another, in the midst of a wicked world.