One of the most compelling plot devices of film noir involves an opening sequence that establishes that the film’s protagonist is dead, or soon will be, as seen in classic titles like Sunset Boulevard or D.O.A. (both produced in 1950). Nino Frank wrote of the crux of film noir as “the dynamism of violent death” and, in general, the many nihilistic crime thrillers to come in the wake of film noir ‘60s and ‘70s, after its major wave ended in 1958 with Welles Touch of Evil, are similarly influenced. Francesco Rosi’s Il caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair, 1972) follows a similar conceit: it begins with the death of the film’s protagonist, Enrico Mattei, a real-life Italian businessman involved in the country’s growing oil industry whose possible assassination in an airplane crash remains unsolved to this day. But despite the inclusion of elements of film noir, the Italian poliziotteschi, and even biographical drama — for instance, many critics have noticed its similarities to Welles’ 1941 film Citizen KaneIl caso Mattei is more experimental and nonlinear than these well-tread cinematic genres, and, in a way, more sinister because of its numerous flirtations with nonfiction, documentary elements and with historical truth. As the film’s tagline asserts, “These events are all the more bizarre because they are TRUE.”

French philosopher Maurice Blanchot wrote of the moment of death as a the point of ultimate possibility, but also as the point where possibility comes to an end. Life — and thus identity, thought, and language — is necessarily defined by death. Blanchot wrote, “Death, thought, close to one another to the extent that thinking, we die, if, dying, we excuse ourselves from thinking: every thought would be mortal; each thought the last thought.” Mattei’s death in the film functions in a similar way; it is impossible to think of Mattei without also thinking of his death, impossible to watch star Gian Maria Volontè commands the screen without wondering every single minute who killed him and why. And even though his death is revealed immediately in the film — and is a historical fact — there are numerous references to it: in one scene Rosi’s plane is intimidated in the air by Yugoslav pilots hovering above and below; in another Mattei declares, “If they want to kill me, let them do it”; and a conversation is recounted in which an American businessman apparently expressed surprised that Mattei had not been assassinated yet.

As Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, in reference to the execution of the traitor Cawdor, “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” The open scenes of Il caso Mattei are concerned with Mattei’s death, and though it is implied that this is an event of paramount importance (not just to the film’s narrative but to its internal world), it is also paradoxically anticlimactic. Mattei, both in life and in death, is defined by his absence, a body torn apart, refracted across television screens and photographic reproductions, or literally scattered across the earth after the plane explodes. A character remarks that “all the priest had to bless was 20 pounds of flesh and bones.” Any melodramatic conventions are stripped away and though there is a glimpse of Mattei’s widow, there are no mourners, no histrionics, and few humanizing elements for Mattei’s character, even though he is generally presented as a decent, moral man. He is both more and less than a conventional protagonist.

Il caso Mattei is essentially a brilliant social thriller that is set up as a political crime film-cum-murder mystery. Rosi is certainly one of Italy’s great political filmmakers, alongside directors like Pasolini, Elio Petri, and Ettore Scola. Like them, he grew up in the ‘30s and experienced both Italian fascism and the trauma of WWII firsthand. For Senses of Cinema, Gino Moliterno wrote that he “continued for half a century to practise an intensely-charged, politically-engaged and socially-committed cinema which has quite justly earned him the title of Italy’s cinematic ‘poet of civic courage.’” He got his start as an assistant director with the great Luchino Visconti, and went on to focus on themes of violence, crime, corruption in government and business, and war; his plots often revolve around mystery, paradox, uncertainty — as other critics have noted, he effectively brought investigative journalism to the screen. In a way, this can be seen as a fascinating offshoot or even interpretation of the neorealism that influenced his early years and the film provides a counterexample to something like Petri’s Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, 1970), which also starred Volontè.

Rosi made several crime thrillers — including some of his most celebrated titles like Salvatore Giuliano (1962), Le mani sulla città (1963), Lucky Luciano (1973), and Cadaveri eccellenti (1976) — and his concerns about justice, truth, and resistance cropped up in numerous ways, such as in the adaptations of WWII memoirs like Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1979) and La tregua (1997). But Il caso Mattei is unique in the sense that Rosi included documentary-like scenes about the (also real-life) disappearance of journalist Mauro De Mauro, who Rosi himself put on the case of investigating the two days before Mattei’s death. After uncovering a recording of Mattei’s final speech, De Mauro was never seen or heard from again (and no corpse was ever recovered).

Rosi uses moments where he himself interviews a journalist character to elegantly contradict scenes that provide an official account of the plane accident. The film is brilliantly, if dizzyingly layered throughout: fictional scenes become an image on a projector that Rosi is watching; out of a pile of photographs of key players, one image acts as a transition point back into the film’s narrative. A heated, televised conference about Mattei’s activities shrinks down to a TV set in front of Mattei in his office. The cinematography from Rosi regular and fellow Visconti-collaborator Pasqualino De Santis is icy and alienating, with exquisitely, if subtly stylized shots, where Mattei is often framed as if he’s in a political advertisement, a captain of industry and charming man of the people. The film is dialogue-heavy (though it’s rapidly-paced and is never tedious) and though there are many shots of Mattei speaking into a telephone in his office, he’s often offset by the Italian countryside, ornate architecture, rural oil sites, and the trappings of media.

As far as Mattei’s character, he remains remote and unknowable, despite a charismatic performance from Rosi’s regular collaborator, Gian Maria Volontè (who also worked repeatedly with Elio Petri and was the dual co-recipient of that year’s major award at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palmes d’Or, which was split between Il caso Mattei and Petri’s La classe operaia va in paradiso). Mattei is defined by his death and by a series of historical events, political and economic manipulations that are almost contradictory in their purposes. In this sense, Rosi’s Mattei is definitely reminiscent of Welles’ Charles Foster Kane. Jonathan Rosenbaum discussed how Rosi intentionally minimized Mattei’s private world, focusing instead on the larger-than-life public persona. “The throbbing monotonal drone [of Piero Piccioni’s unforgettable electronic score] heard at crucial junctures on the soundtrack, comprising a structural and melodramatic equivalent to [Citizen Kane’s] Rosebud without the accompanying denouement, creates an anxiety-producing void at the edges of Gian Maria Volontè’s charismatic performance roughly equivalent to the absences in political melodramas as diverse as Made in USA and The Parallax View.”

During the war years, Mattei was a partisan fighter in the Italian Resistance, where he proved his worth to the Christian Democratic party. And instead of shutting down and dismantling Agip (the national petroleum agency) as he had been ordered to do, Mattei took it over and vastly expanded it, effectively creating his own business empire under the umbrella of the ENI (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi), the National Fuel Trust. He changed the face of European oil dealings in the postwar years and grew to have an international influence, breaking up what he saw as the American (and Western European) monopoly on oil through his dealings with Soviet and Arab countries in the midst of the Cold War; he was also a determined supporter of Algerian independence. But Rosi makes it impossible not to question whether Mattei’s political impulses were genuine or conveniently lined up with his economic aims.

The plane crash that killed him on October 27, 1962, was officially declared an accident, but was eventually believed to be a due to a bombing (American journalist William McHale and the plane’s pilot were also killed). A former member of the French intelligence agency, the SDECE, claimed some of his fellow agents were responsible for the crash, due to Mattei’s interference in French oil plans for Algeria, while a former mobster declared the Sicilian mafia to be responsible (because they were allegedly acting on behalf of the American mob); additional rumors pointed a finger at the CIA, among other antagonists. The haze of mystery and violence that surround Mattei’s death (and his life) is symptomatic of this period, known as the anni di piombo or “years of lead.” In addition to a mass wave of terrorist attacks throughout Italy, violence from police and organized crime, as well as rioting, the decade was marked by events like Pasolini’s grisly murder in 1975 — itself blamed on a young hustler, but later believed to be a well-orchestrated conspiracy — and the kidnapping and execution of political leader Aldo Moro in 1978 by the Red Brigade.

Like these murky events and many key figures of the time, Mattei was defined by his politics. Though a successful and influential businessman, he was in stark contrast to the moneyed American businessman type. There’s a distinctly anti-American sentiment that can also be found in some of Fernando Di Leo’s poliziotteschi films — there typically expressed by Italian-American mafia characters — echoed here in the American businessmen depicted as vile, greedy corrupters who are not only deeply classist, but also racist, making this film uncomfortably apt today. Though he is undoubtedly a master manipulator in Rosi’s film, it is implied that Mattei is so innovative largely because he rejects these tenets. He’s willing to deal with anyone interested in doing business with him, regardless of nationality, religion, or political background. He says, “Oil companies are not the West. They’re stock partnerships, that’s all.” The idea is “to avoid domination. To consider the Third World as a world of men and not one of inferiors.”

There is also a distinctly leftist slant and the film shares its politics with Mattei’s historical persona, Rosi, and especially star Volontè. In the film, Mattei himself talks of “the secrets of our soil” and mentions that the Italian state “owns everything under the soil.” There is a clear relationship between individual versus communal interests and the film’s larger connection to the properties of Italian soil — oil, methane — and Mattei’s body spread like so much fertilizer over the earth in Lombardy, where his plane exploded. Mattei himself became indistinguishable from AGIP and there is a certain irony — which should be particularly felt by contemporary audiences — that this seemingly devoted leftist should be the man to help industrialize Italy and to go toe-to-toe with oil tycoons, his particular generation’s robber barons.

Though in some sense he is presented as a liberator and even an economic and political hero, there is an unavoidably pessimistic note — which is felt in many of Rosi’s films — connected to Mattei’s death and the many layered references to it within the film, not to mention the disappearance of De Mauro. Rosi seemed to suggest a sense of layered resistance and rebellion: Mattei’s actions were revolutionary, threatening to numerous powers in the spheres of politics, big business, government, and organized crime, but Rosi’s decision to make the film and De Mauro’s dogged investigation of Mattei’s last days were reflections of that same dark, chaotic (and ultimately liberating) energy. In an interview with Cineaste, Rosi said that in his films,

“A single truth doesn’t exist, so I don’t want to offer a simple answer. The films are interested in the search for truth and in encouraging reflection. To be effective, the questions the films ask must continue to live in the viewer even after the film is over… Films should not end but should continue to grow inside us. Ideally, they should grow inside us over the years, the same way that our historical memory grows inside of us – and films are our most vital historical documentation. This power of suggestion is what defines the greatness of a film, and what I would even say is its function.”

Il caso Mattei’s circular, serpentine nature certainly requires repeat viewings, as does the director’s refusal to provide an answer to the film’s central mystery — whodunnit — which history has thus far also declined to resolve. Though Mattei’s death is never a surprise, the film’s relentless tension and pervasive sense of dread lingers far after the final credits. As Rosi suggested, Il caso Mattei’s questions provide far more substance than its answers and if, as the director suggests, a film can be considered great on this merit, than Il caso Mattei is not only one for the ages, but is eerily appropriate for the current political climate.