Todo Modo

By Larry Portis.

This article was originally published in Film International 46, vol. 8, no. 4, 2010. We republish it here in homage to our most valued and missed collaborator Larry Portis who passed away suddenly on June 4, 2011. Read Part 1 here.

In the first part of my assessment of Elio Petri’s work in cinema, I attempted to show how he innovated in his early films. Petri’s working-class origins, his membership in the resistance-driven Italian Communist Party in the early post-war period and his experience as film critic and director’s assistant immersed him in the school of Italian realism. However, he rejected economic determinism in favour of a more realistic and nuanced consideration of individual psychology in the formation of social consciousness. When he began making feature films early in the 1960s, he succeeded in combining ‘objective’ factors of social analysis with the most nuanced attention to personal ‘subjectivities’. Herein lies the originality of his early films such as The Murderer/Il Assassino (1961), The Tenth Victim/La decima vittima (1965), We Still Kill the Old Way/A ciascuno il suo (1967) and A Quiet Place in the Country/Un tranquillo posto di campagna (1968). By combining social criticism and political commitment with an exploration of existential subjectivities in individuals, he went beyond political denunciation and ‘psychological’ studies by showing that we cannot understand one dimension of reality without showing how different dimensions are interrelated.

Young Karl Marx

By the end of the 1960s significant numbers of people had recognized the critical content of Elio Petri’s films.[i] Most importantly, critical perspectives on western imperialism and on Soviet-style communism had ripened everywhere. For much of a new generation on the political Left, Marxian analysis transcended the simplistic formulas of orthodoxies established by Communist Parties and reproduced in capitalist propaganda. Writings of the more apparently philosophical ‘young Marx’ were in vogue. Alternative revolutionary perspectives were now nourished by ‘existential Marxism’ as professed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, by the fusion of Marx and Freud found in Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, and by the rediscovery of the ‘Frankfurt School’ and Antonio Gramsci.

Revolutionary analysis was no longer a simple matter of showing the relation between economic structure and politics based on class struggle. Now it was necessary to reveal how this was mediated by culture on all social and aesthetic levels. ‘Everyday life’ in capitalist societies is now perceived as a field of conflict and engagement. Self-perceptions and inter-personal relations are now seen as areas in which political struggle takes place. ‘The personal is political’ quickly became a feminist slogan, one that applies to political commitment in general. This was the period of ‘meta-historical political narratives’ in which ‘structural’ analysis was fused with the concern to show how ‘subjectivity’ cannot be separated from the objective conditions of existence.

In his later films Petri further developed his unusual talent by applying it to the most profound questions of social and political understanding. With Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion/Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni (1969), The Working Class Goes to Heaven/La classe operaia va in paradiso (1971) Property is No Longer Theft/La proprietà non è più un furto (1973) and Todo modo (1976), Petri analysed legal institutions and law enforcement, working-class consciousness and consumerism, the relation between private property and mentality, and the nature and functioning of the state.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion was released in 1969, at the height of radical agitation in the world. The subject is the functioning of the police, and one might be tempted to say that the time was right given the recent years of protests and demonstrations in which clashes between crowds and the ‘forces of order’ provoked controversy about the behaviour of the police. The uprising in Paris in May 1968, the ‘police riots’ in Chicago in August of the same year and the murderous repression of students in Mexico City from July to October 1968 – to mention only these dramatic examples – raised questions about the police that subsequent events dramatized. Italy was no exception to the general trend; on the contrary, the years of fascism and then the political effervescence following the liberation politicized any discussion of the law and its enforcement. The reception of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion may have benefited from the political and social context. In 1970 it received an Oscar for the best foreign film of the year.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

In this film Gian Maria Volonte plays a police commissioner highly placed in the homicide division. His powerful function has clearly strengthened a belief in his superiority over everyone else, in the force or out of it. At the beginning of the film he encounters a high-class call girl, played by Florinda Bolkan, who becomes his mistress. They meet frequently in her apartment and their conversation seems to reveal kindred spirits who are essentially self-centred and honestly cynical. This rather hedonistic and practical disposition is fully expressed in their lovemaking; she plays the victim in a ritual in which he pretends to kill her at the climatic moment. Nothing too strange here: the orgasmic connection between love and death is well known, or at least frequently an object of fantasy. The problem may have been that the erotic ritual became a routine. ‘How are you going to kill me this time,’ says she. A more ominous sign that the thrill may have been wearing down is that Augusta (Bolkan) begins to make sardonic comments. Most seriously, she calls the proud commissioner a child who makes love like a child. Is it so surprising then, that he cuts her throat?

Now that Volonté’s character (that of the police commissioner) is well established, we begin to see how the expression of his wounded masculinity is rooted deeply in this familiar pathology. Before leaving Augusta’s apartment, the commissioner carefully prepares the crime scene, making sure that signs of his presence remain. We gradually learn that our debonair commissioner confidently expects that his position will not allow any possible suspicion of his connection to the murder. He is encouraged in this belief by the fact that on the very day of the murder he is promoted, becoming the director of the political division of the police. On the occasion he makes a speech affirming that there is less and less difference between civil and political crimes. Strikes and prostitution, for example, also threaten the established order. Moreover, any type of subversion is an attack on freedom itself. Only the law can guarantee liberty. And, to cap it off, he quotes Sigmund Freud: ‘Repression is civilization!’

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

During the rest of the film we are treated to a guided tour of the secret police archives of all political tendencies. We enter a Kafkaesque world where attempts to control every possible source or expression of dissidence becomes an overriding administrative, bureaucratic objective and obsession. In order to accomplish this work, one principle must be maintained at all costs: hierarchic authority. Any breakdown of the chain of command, calling into question established authority in any way, will lead to confusion and, worst of all … to anarchy. For Petri, it was impossible, therefore, not to include references to the events of the moment. The agitation of students and young people is depicted as an essential counterpart to the repressive matrix. However sympathetic we may be, the emotional provocations and slogans of youthful dissidents are the perfect justification for the implementation of repressive structures – including torture and assassination – and their application by ambitious or cowed functionaries and cynical, sadistic agents of the capitalist state. At one point, upon hearing imprisoned student activists arguing in their cell, the commissioner remarks: ‘As long as they fight among themselves we will have no problem.’

Needless to say, this film drew attacks from both the authorities and the radical political Left. Although it is clear that the focus of Petri’s analysis is the nature and function of authority, suggesting any kind of structural complicity between the executioners and their victims was at the time beyond the pale of political correctness.

It was typical of Elio Petri that, in response to a question about his objectives in making Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, he forthrightly expressed his feelings about the police in general: ‘I wanted to make a film about the police. During the 25 years that have followed the fall of fascism, the police in the republic of Italy are guilty of carrying out dozens and dozens of summary executions in the streets and highways – killings of working-class people guilty only of struggling against misery and injustice – and no policeman has ever paid for these murders.’ The film-maker then quickly supplemented this expression of moral revulsion by saying: ‘However, I was most interested in exposing the mechanisms that guarantee impunity to the servants of power.’

Those mechanisms – biological or social processes – that condition the functioning of a system are the keys to understanding it. To detect or discern the ‘regularities’ in existence that underlie its external characteristic is the objective of analysis.

What he makes clear is that these mechanisms are not simply the informal productions of institutional connivance. They also involve social relations on larger and deeper levels. In comparing two of his films that express ideas through the vehicle of the detective/police genre (We Still Kill The Same Way and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) there is a similarity between an intellectual who doesn’t know how to read facts in real life and a population that doesn’t recognize them. In the case of the intellectual, there is immaturity that has nothing to do with intellectuality. For the rest of us, ‘If we think, for example, that a political or social institution or a social system are natural facts and not produced by historical change, if we think that these facts are natural like storms or the climate, we are stunted, incomplete, immature individuals.’

We must draw the important conclusions: not only are persons in positions of authority forcibly immature individuals, but so are most of us who – in one way or another – submit to authority. Relations based on domination can only lead to stunted development and regression.

If Petri was concerned primarily by analysis, and not so much by simply re-presenting reality by means of cinematographic art, his motivation was nevertheless one of active commitment in social struggle. In 1969, after the defenestration of Giuseppe Pinelli – an anarchist accused of complicity in the bombing of a bank in Milan on the Piazza Fontana – from a window at police headquarters, Petri took the lead in investigating the affair and contributing to a collective film about it.

Pinelli’s murder by the authorities is recognized to have been a key event in the ‘strategy of tension’ developed during these years. It is now well established that in the 1960s the Italian governments, with assistance from the United States and its secret services, the Vatican and the criminal underworld, carried out a secret programme of repression, subversion and terrorism including assassination and bombings in order to weaken political opposition and to confuse and to divide the Italian population. The Christian Democratic Party was the epicentre of this long-running strategy, a strategy that the Pinelli affair and its ramifications helped bring to light. In 1970, Elio Petri and Nelo Risi made the documentary film Hypotheses/Ipotesi, exposing the machinations of the police. Although only Petri and Risi contributed to the film, it was signed by several other well-known directors – Lucio Visconti, Marco Bellocchio, Ettore Scola and Mario Monicelli – so as to create problems for the authorities, who they expected to use the judicial system to stop its release.

Petri’s next film, The Working Class Goes to Heaven, awarded the grand prize at the Cannes film festival in 1972 (shared with Francesco Rosi’s The Mattei Affair), approached the question of power from another point of view. Any revolutionary challenge to the capitalist system must come from those who have an interest in eliminating the social class domination upon which the system is founded. This was the belief of the leftist students depicted in Investigation of a Citizen Beyond Suspicion, and it was Petri’s as well. But what if the working class is so integrated into the system of capitalist production that it has ceased to hold out the promise of a revolutionary opposition? Such was not Petri’s perception, but the question of working-class ‘consciousness’ is central to any serious consideration of radical political change.

Filmed in a factory occupied by striking workers, The Working Class Goes to Heaven features Gian Maria Volonte and a few other professional actors, but the workers play themselves. The story centres around Lulu Massa (Volonte), a loner on the assembly line where workers are paid according to the number of pieces they produce. Lulu’s efforts to make as much money as possible speeds up the work for everyone, putting upward pressure on expected production levels and downward pressure on wages. The other workers and the unions are furious, but Lulu’s individualism is unshakable. However, his bad temper and frenzied efforts result in an accident in which he loses a finger and, ultimately, his employment. At this point, the workers walk off the job and a major strike begins. Lulu is now at the centre of the strike action and it changes his perceptions of the work place, of himself and of the society. This is a film that shows how values and mentality, including sexuality, are structured by factory discipline, work habits and consumerism. In addition, it reveals how participation in collective actions can have a liberating effect.

Here is what Petri says about the film:

The Working Class Goes to Heaven

‘It was important to make a film that shows how a worker makes the decision to go on strike. The starting point of the film was the idea that work on the assembly line makes people slaves doing exactly the same thing for years and years without even knowing what their work is for. The ‘Italian miracle’ took place because people were doing in eight hours what formerly took fifteen hours to do, in other words the work is done more and more frenetically. The workers are slaves and we could even say they are like monkeys obsessively repeating the same motions. This problem is as old as Marxism and one of the merits of the student movement is to have shed light on the most essential problems, the most simple, those that politics has perverted or betrayed. This is why the film is simple. Work on the assembly line is also exemplary of bourgeois existence: the workers are the first victims, but I think that anyone who works in the capitalist system, based on the need to produce as much as possible, suffers from the same tensions, from the same alienations; even the intellectual and the petty bourgeois, happy with their little privileges, are not aware of where they stand in this system.’ (Petri quoted in Gili 1974: 76–77)

In contrast to most people on the political Left, including members of the Communist Party and those young or not-so-young people on the Far Left, Petri believed that ‘class consciousness’ was not well developed in workers. Consequently, all the rhetoric about the possibility of a working-class revolution was mostly just … rhetoric, having little relation to reality. So the question was: what is the social reality and the political potential of the working class?

For Petri, political activism, including striking, runs against a profound fear in most workers. This fear is intimately tied to their conceptions of themselves as human beings: they are workers, and if they do not work they lose the very essence of their being. Petri explains that the main character in this film, Lulu Massa, ‘is an average worker’.

‘Of course there are fascist workers, but the majority of the working class is like him, they still lack class consciousness. Then there are vanguard workers, and, from a political point of view, there is a small minority of reactionary workers. But the great majority of workers have common sense about political realities and they are afraid of losing their jobs. The majority of workers live in this fear. When you see Lulu’s panic when he is fired you see the real desperation of the average worker. For a worker, employment is the foundation of life itself. Work security is essential. It is true that with union organization there has been some progress. But at the same time the unions are not a solution to the problem.’ (Gili 1974: 77–78)

The real problem, and the solution, is inherent in the system of capitalist production.

In the film, the militant workers and the activist students are presented in a very sympathetic light, but they, too, reveal limited insight into the problems posed by the system and its capacity to confuse and divide the opposition. For the self-designated ‘revolutionaries’ the problem is sectarianism. For the Italian Communist Party the problem is the same but also its flexibility in relation to the bourgeoisie and liberals. Seeing itself as on the verge of assuming state power, it accommodates the ruling elites, but it is severe in relation to left-wing students.

‘These attitudes mean that there is a kind of paralysis of Marxist thinking on both sides. One side dominated by the realism and pragmatism of everyday political practice and, consequently, having learned political double talk from their contact with bourgeois politicians, and the other side spouting like parrots what was written in 1848 or 1905 without contributing anything new in the attempt to change reality.’ (Gili 1974: 79).

Although a leftist film-maker, Petri’s perspective tended to trouble the radical Left, when it didn’t simply reject his critiques. Moreover, in the film and in interviews he suggested the problem was of such profound mental proportions that those in its throes could certainly benefit from psychoanalytical examination. Admittedly influenced by the reading of Wilhelm Reich, Petri says that,

‘It is curious to see that Freud – and here what I’m expressing are the ideas of a film director, who is not a thinker, a philosopher or a sociologist; they are certainly naïve ideas, but I believe the problems involve precisely what he calls sexual misery and that, basically, Marx treats economic, material misery. There is clearly a general notion of poverty, of insecurity, that concerns sexuality just as it does economy.’ (Gili 1974: 80)

The Working Class Goes to Heaven

But what role can a film-maker, or artists in general, play in all this? Can they help overcome the barriers to political or social-class consciousness? Petri did not believe that his films had any capacity whatsoever to offer remedies, although he did wish to call attention to the fundamental problems. However, it would be unrealistic to be optimistic about even this effort because of the difficulties of distribution in the popular culture industry. He had no illusions about the influence of his films, at least in regards to their immediate impact on the public and even on people who are already politicized:

‘A film like The Working Class Goes to Heaven is submerged in the hundreds of films that have no oppositional value whatsoever. In addition, every politically committed film is made outside the film industry. They are made with limited resources and most often are purely and simply propaganda by a group to convince its own members that they are doing the right thing. These are not dialectical films.’ (Gili 1974: 82)

By ‘dialectical films’ Petri meant those capable of showing the contradictions and tensions constitutive of social and political life. Any simplistic representation of this reality, and no matter how well meaning or ‘progressive’ it may be, will fail to inform the public or contribute to its capacity to understand the nature of capitalist society. In The Working Class Goes to Heaven, he most essentially asked the question ‘What is the working class?’ The answer is that it is far more than the reified entity thought to exist by the self-styled ‘revolutionary’ political Left, whether the Communist Party or the more radical groups and parties on the Left. The working class is structured by social relations of capitalist production, but the perceptions and consciousness of working-class people are conditioned by ideology and values engendered by capitalist enterprise and commercial processes.

Petri’s next film, Property is No Longer Theft (1973), deepened his analysis of how capitalism engenders and, in his estimation, perverts values, by examining the role of property in this system.

The film centres on a young bank employee, Total, who suffers from a rare skin disease: he is allergic to money. Whether his affliction is physical or essentially psychosomatic is not established, but it leads to a realization that money exerts its tyranny over all aspects of life and must be combated in every possible way. He says, ‘I would like to be and to have, but I know it is impossible.’ From his vantage point in the bank, Total undertakes a variety of subversive actions intended to expose the social and psychic sickness that money represents. Total assumes a new persona corresponding to what he calls ‘Marxism-Mandrake-ism’. He becomes a kind of caped Batman in a solitary crusade against the tyranny of money.

But the real – the most fundamental – evil that money represents is property itself. Total’s actions and observations in this comically serious film are designed to show how capitalist society has actually reversed the ideals that are generally, although hypocritically, accepted as moral values in our society. If Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the French father of anarchism, wrote: ‘Property is theft,’ Elio Petri has Total say: ‘Property, more than theft, is a sickness.’ Money is only a symptom of the real subject of the film – possession.

At one point, an inspired monologue is delivered, a kind of homage to thieves as the only people refusing the central hypocrisy of the capitalist system. Thieves, it is said, create work for so many others, for example in the security industry and in advertising. But Petri cautions us that thieves differ from other capitalists only in that they are less hypocritical. Such criminals also, he says, almost always go into business, opening restaurants, for example. The question is not the accumulation of capital but rather the sickness represented by the desire to possess, whether of money or other people, most notably women, and especially the women possessed by other men. Possession is also rooted in, and expressed through, sexuality.

Possession extends its power over all aspects of human contact and social relationships. ‘We are equal in our needs,’ it is announced in the film, ‘but unequal in their satisfaction’. This is a system that creates frustration and this frustration becomes a dynamic in the perpetuation of the system. Property is a mode of alienation that virtually no one can escape. In discussing his film, Petri observed:

‘When I watch children I know, I feel that the first thing they express is the desire to appropriate. They automatically say ‘No’, and then ‘It’s mine!’ This initial refusal and then the appropriation is motivated by the need to forge their own identity. They need constant proof of their own existence, especially their social existence.’ (Gili 1974: 84)

Property is No Longer Theft

Although presented in a comic way, Property is No Longer Theft is basically about morality in that it analyses the behaviour of its characters from a critical standpoint and finds all of them complicit in the functioning of an unhealthy system. Even Total, he who is allergic to money and carries out a burlesqued guerrilla action against it, cannot escape the desire to acquire the possessions of others, whether money or women. Petri’s motive in making this film, a film in which no one represents an alternative, was to say that no one should pretend to be immune from the disease carried by the society. ‘To journalists who ask me why I didn’t put any positive person in this film’, his response is:

‘In the petty-bourgeois hell that property and money represent there is no possibility of liberation. Property is a room that must be destroyed. [I]f we enter the closed room of property and money we are gassed by the toxic vapours exhaled by our unconscious; this room can only be destroyed. There is no way to change it.’ (Gili 1974: 83)

Petri’s most controversial film is Todo Modo (1976). If The Working Class Goes to Heaven laid bare the psychic troubles affecting working-class consciousness, caused by alienated work and consumerism, and Property is No Longer Theft showed how the centrality of possession structures thinking and underlies the formation of culture on every societal level, Todo Modo carries his examination of political life to the inner circles of power.

Todo Modo

The story is deceptively simple: a national epidemic has frightened and agitated the population creating a crisis of social control. Consequently, a secret conference has brought together the most powerful individuals representing the various sectors of political and social power – state administration, military, church, political parties. They have agreed to meet in protected isolation in order to consult about measures to take. We see these political interests incarnated in powerful but human, all-too-human individuals who represent their power base ideologically and psychically.

Petri puts on stage what C. Wright Mills called the ‘power elite’. And we see it as an essentially contradictory composite of different perceptions and impulses that require harmonization when confronting any ‘crisis’. The fact that Petri included centre and left of centre political parties – particularly the Christian Democratic Party – in this complex of reactionary political forces was outrageous to some people at the time. Gian Maria Volonte plays a cold, cynical leader of the Christian Democratic Party and bears an uncanny physical resemblance to its real-life director, Aldo Moro. Marcello Mastroianni represents the Vatican.

Released in 1976, the film called into question the famously controversial ‘historic compromise’ brokered by Moro with the Communist Party and designed to create a national unity government. It was a political deal that, according to its critics on the political Left, would allow the further political stultification of the country by demobilizing social forces. The political deal was especially opposed by the revolutionary Left, but also by the United States officials (including NATO and the CIA). The imminent realization of the project led to the kidnapping of Moro by the Red Brigades in March 1978. Moro was assassinated 54 days later, after the Italian government refused to negotiate for his release and began a dragnet making it impossible to keep him hidden indefinitely. Speculation continues as to whether Italian leaders, under threat by the US government, were complicit in the murder. It has also been suggested that the Red Brigades at the time were manipulated by US secret services. As for Petri, he was immediately accused in the press as having encouraged the kidnapping and murder with his film Todo Modo.

Todo Modo

After the assassination of Moro, Elio Petri stated unambiguously that he did, indeed, wish ‘to make a film against the party that had governed Italy for thirty years and brought the country to cultural and political disaster’. For Petri, Moro was a complex character at once cynical and idealistic who had all the qualities of a martyr; he ‘carried power on his shoulders like a heavy cross, and the torment of this spiritual burden could be seen on his bloodless face, in his slightly erratic behaviour, in the bitter grimace formed by his mouth, and in his sickly gaze’. He had taken on the psychologically insupportable task of reconciling the spiritual pretensions and the material corruption typical of the Christian Democratic Party (Petri 1996: 33).

However, it should not be imagined that Petri had sympathy for the methods used by the Red Brigades who, in effect, did stop the historic compromise from happening. The very idea that progressive social change can come from terrorist acts like kidnapping is alien to his understanding of society and historical reality. The dialectic of political violence and state repression is something integral to the domination and exploitation proper to the political administration of a capitalist society and the designation and creation of enemies is a major means of social control. It is also difficult to imagine that Petri would have taken a particularly moralistic approach when dealing with the question of terror as a revolutionary tactic.[ii] For him, the most important result of political action and, in his case, cultural production, is its ability to contribute to informed understanding of social and political realities.

Todo Modo

Todo Modo is a logical result of the progression of Petri’s exploration of power and social domination because it places the functioning of the capitalist state within a context of decision-making as a process of elite negotiations among and between the most powerful representatives of ruling-class interest groups. Whereas Francesco Rosi’s The Mattei Affair/Il caso Mattei (1972), or Constantin Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege (1972) tend to observe extra-constitutional oligarchic activities – including assassination and coups d’état – from the outside, Petri leads us into the conflictual proceedings of a secret ruling-class conclave convoked for the purposes of determining policy and coordinating its application. In doing so, he reveals two essential aspects of state power.

First, the capitalist state is a vehicle for social control through the imposition of oligarchical authority that is never contained by constitutional limits. On the contrary, in practice arbitrary authority is only dissimulated and, thus, justified by reference to representative, ‘republican’ checks and balances. Constitutional liberties and institutional restraints exist, but they are mainly formal. Informally, the different forms of executive, administrative, military and intelligence operations often, and most essentially, are outside the reach of legislative, judicial or popular control.

Second, state policy is not established by a homogeneous group of decision-makers, but rather through negotiations fraught with conflicting interests, agendas and all the mistrust, intrigue and treasons they engender. Ruling-class coherence only tenuously exists. The people who compose the decision-making elites thrive on the crises that characterize the system. Moreover, constantly encouraging the idea that crises must be dealt with – whether by the ‘strategy of tension’ or the old ‘divide and conquer’ method – can be self-defeating. It contributes to a reactionary, paranoiac mentality, warping perceptions of reality and leading members of the oligarchy into bitter conflict about priorities. In Todo Modo, these contradictions within the ruling groups and within the minds of their individual members are expressed variously in megalomania, sexual perversions and ideological hallucinations. Most provocatively, at least in Italy, Petri’s analysis of the ruling class assumed that virtually all political parties were complicit in the system of control and shared these symptoms.

It is tempting to illustrate the contemporary relevance of Petri’s Todo Modo by invidiously comparing it to Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009). Here, Jarmusch offers a vision of elite conspiracy (on a global level) but focuses only on the possibility of organized opposition to what is clearly seen as an organic, homogeneous ruling group blinded by its contempt for the masses and by its technological hubris. Jarmusch offers no insight into the nature and practical functioning of the state in relation to the heterogeneity of elite interests. His message is that oppositional forces are capable of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles (in order to carry out what are, in effect, terrorist – read ‘revolutionary’ – actions) against the masters of the world. We see this same vision in V for Vendetta by James McTeigue (2005). Moreover, it is clear that Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo (2008), about the occult role of Giulio Andreotti in the strategy of tension and the longevity of the Christian Democrats, is analytically regressive in relation to Todo Modo because it tends to ascribe a central role to individuals in the authoritarian and basically criminal processes of state governance. Petri’s work is in stark contrast to these certainly well-meaning attempts to inspire dissidents with the idea that a reactionary and evil global City Hall can be fought with its own nefarious methods. The structure of ruling-class power is a complex system pervaded by weaknesses that are internal and related to the political compromises produced by them.

Before he was felled by cancer in 1982, Petri’s films had clearly gone beyond the limits of what was expected of ‘respectable’ film-makers, and he increasingly had difficulty financing his films. Although he continued to make excellent films, such as the acclaimed version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Dirty Hands/Les Mains sales made for Italian television in 1978 and a theatrical production of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock (1982), Petri’s uncompromising analysis was met with little favour in the aftermath of the years of political confrontations. If he had lived, and in spite of the difficult political conjuncture existing from the mid-1970s, his importance in the history of cinema would be more recognized today. Could such recognition come in the midst of the present economic and political situation? There are indications that it may.[iii]

Larry Portis wrote a number of books on history, culture and politics. His autobiographical novel American Dreamingwas published in April 2011.


Gili, Jean A. (ed.) (1974), Elio Petri, Nice: Faculté des Lettres et Science Humaines, Section d’Histoire.

Petri, Elio (1996), ‘Leonardo Sciascia’, in Jean A. Gili, Elio Petri & le cinéma italien, Annecy: Rencontres du Cinéma Italien d’Annecy, reprinted from L’Arc, 77 (1979).


[i] It would have been extremely difficult to write these articles about the work of Elio Petri without the help of Paola Petri, Jean A. Gili and Henri Talvat. The conversations, films, documentation and general goodwill they provided were indispensable in this effort. The project had its origins in the Mediterranean Film Festival in Montpellier, France in October–November 2009.

[ii] I believe Petri would have combined a representation of political terrorism of the type practiced by the Red Brigades and Prima Ligna with a clear demonstration of the functioning of the state and its relation to political power and social relations. This is, however, unfortunately not the preoccupation of some otherwise interesting films on the subject, such as Marco Bellochio’s Buonogiorno, Notte, 2003, Daniele Luchetti’s My Brother is an Only Child/Mio fratello è figlio unico (2007), Michele Placido’s The Big Dream/Il grande sogno (2009), and Renato de Maria’s The Front Line/La Prima Linea (2009).

[iii] A step in this direction is the documentary directed and written by Stefano Leone, Federico Baci and Nicola Guarneri: Elio Petri – Notes on a Filmmaker/Elio Petri – Appunti su un autore (2005).

4 thoughts on “The director who must (not?) be forgotten: Elio Petri and the legacy of Italian political cinema, Part 2”

  1. Thanks for this complete and accurate article on Elio Petri.
    It’s is a pity that Larry didn’t include his review on last film by Elio “Buone notizie / Good News” (1979). I am sure that Larry would have appreciate it.

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