When L’assassino’s (1961) protagonist, Alfredo Martelli (Marcello Mastroianni), declares “I am not a perfect man,” you believe him. His girlfriend is dead, he has been accused of killing her. During the murder investigation Martelli is forced to face up to all of his past failures: bad son, neglectful lover, financial failure, coward, liar, thief. His business is built on conning the poor out of antiques, only so he can sell them on to bored rich housewives at ten times the price. He relies on women to keep him. His latest, Adalgisa, lies dead on a mortuary slab.
Yet, while they may call him the Lady Killer of Rome, Alfredo Martelli isn’t really so bad. He may be frail, greedy, insecure and narcissistic, but he is just playing out the archetype of an Elio Petri male character. What this means is that despite all his failings, he’s human. Just like us. This was the genius of Elio Petri. He made you care about his characters, even when they didn’t deserve sympathy. It may be Marcello Mastroianni’s pouting and shrugging that pulls it off; his whining cries of “Adalgisa!!!” could be a big part of the reason you feel for him. But when it really comes down to it, or at least what Petri lets you believe is that Alfredo Martelli is just a man trying to get by. A simple man, with expensive tastes admittedly, pressured by a rapidly changing society, trying to escape the poverty of his social class.
Class and poverty were key aspects in the cinema of Elio Petri. As a filmmaker he spoke to the working classes: his people, for whom he saw “all life as political” (Elio Petri: Notes on a Filmmaker, 2005). Through his work he explored how power and money corrupts, by putting a series of male protagonists into desperate situations to test their limits. Not all the scenarios were as dramatic as Martelli’s. But if it’s an Elio Petri film, one thing you can always count on is that somewhere at the centre of everything, there’s a man having an existential crisis. Be it over the size of his penis, or whether he can outwit the authorities because his masochistic girlfriend drove him to murder, is by the by. He might just be sick of his job, or so in love with his job that pride allows him to drive his wife into the arms of another (richer) man. The only thing that is clear is life for the men in Petri’s universe is difficult and plagued with insecurity.
Jacqueline Reich’s work, Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity and Italian Cinema, gives vital context to understand what’s going on with Petri’s weak men. In essence each and every one, on some level, is a failure. It seems fitting — given the title of her book — that Mastroianni would play Petri’s first male lead, setting down the blueprint for others to follow. According to Reich, the star personified what became known as the “inetto” (inept) in Italian cinema. It was this character type Elio Petri continued to use time and time again, right up to his last film, Good News (1979). Reich explains,
“Italian masculinity, with its cultural associations of Ancient Rome, Renaissance sculpture and the Latin Lover, has been widely seen as the masculine ideal for Western civilisation. Rather than the dashing and debonair Don Giovanni, the inetto, the particularly Italian incarnation of the schmiel or anti-hero, comes to dominate the representations of masculinity in Italian cinema, and in Mastroianni’s films in particular. This figure is a man in conflict, with an unsettled and at times unsettling political and sexual environment. Since the fall of Fascism and the end of World War II, Italy has been mired by radical change in the social and economic fabric of daily life. Mastroianni’s roles provide a window into important shifts in gender roles in this turbulent and unstable period as they came to be reflected on the silver screen” (1).
The radical change which Reich describes had consequences. On one hand, after the war, Italy saw a boom in industry, meaning the economy grew exponentially in a very short space of time. As a result, people enjoyed a standard of living they had never known before. Cities thrived, and many came to seek their fortune there. Then corruption set in: weak governments, dirty business, slum living conditions. It all took a toll on the working classes. Greedy industrialists were quick to take advantage, and throughout the sixties tensions began to grow. Into the seventies, the country was plagued with violent political unrest and industrial action. Adding to this, with a rise in affluence, as well as an industry ready to supply the demand, people began to desire and fetishize consumer products. The working classes were trapped in a live to work existence, as they aspired to escape poverty through obtaining a modern lifestyle and all its trappings. Traditional gender roles were changing too. Divorce laws were passed in 1970 and women, who were also moving into the workplace, were starting to find a sense of independence. These were some of the themes that Petri continued to explore throughout his career.
Although his debut L’assassino has had a blu-ray release, the director’s next two features remain his most obscure. I giorni contati (His Days are Numbered, 1962), Petri’s second film, is arguably one of his most poetic and bleak. Starring Salvo Randone — who had appeared in the previous year’s L’assassino as the determined detective, Palumbo — the film focuses on middle aged plumber Cesare. After seeing a man in his early fifties drop dead on the tram, Cesare decides he doesn’t want to spend the years he has left slaving away. So he quits his job and goes on a voyage of self discovery. Or at least he tries to. Of all Petri’s males, Cesare differs from the rest of the pack in that he displays no traits of the inetto. He’s a hard worker, lonely, maybe even cowardly at times, but capable and honest. He doesn’t bleat and whine like many of the director’s other protagonists. Instead, in rebelling against the system he tries to make another life for himself — although circumstances later pressure him into becoming associated with criminal activity. Sadly, for all his attempts, he is forced to carry on. Petri uses the narrative to explore the plight of the working classes as tools for industry. He asserts the idea that for working class men in Italy, the only way to exist is through desperation and crime, or by committing to a lifetime of meaningless labour in the workplace. In doing so, Petri comes to some cynical conclusions, offering no hope or happy ending for Cesare or the audience.
1963’s Il maestro di Vigevano (The Teacher from Vigevano) is no less dark in its denouement. However, its elements of absurd comedy, coupled with Alberto Sordi’s hilarious performance as Maestro Mombelli, ensure that while the conclusions remain cynical, the tone does not. Mombelli is a proud professor, unable to accept the fact that teaching is no longer a respected profession, or that his family will be forced to endure poverty unless he embraces opportunity and becomes an industrialist. He may be well intentioned, but his pride and short-sightedness comes at a cost; especially when it concerns his beautiful young wife, Ada (Claire Bloom), who wants more than to just get by in life.
Unlike Cesare, Mombelli exhibits many characteristics of the inetto. He’s a big baby for a start. His boasting ruins the family business, and his inability to succeed at anything becomes the brunt of most of the film’s many jokes. In one of the key scenes, we see Mombelli, whose wife has all but left him for another man, lying in bed sick, crying like a child for someone to nurse him. He is haunted by delirious visions, trapped in the garden of Eden where the group of nymphs who reside there, including Ada, laugh and taunt him. Mombelli’s cuckolded position, and the anxieties and themes of impotence which surround it — in contrast to Ada’s ambition and drive — echoes into the director’s later work from this point on (although, in part L’assassino also features a man subjugated to a much more powerful woman). For Petri, behind every whimpering man crying out to be respected and adored by women, is an independent woman, far more capable in every way and ready to remind him of that fact.
Independent women were back again for Petri’s next picture. 1965’s La decima vittima (The Tenth Victim), as the director continued on the comedy route. Filmed in colour — unlike his three previous features — the film is dystopian sci-fi that explores themes of modernity versus tradition in an evolving Rome, capitalism and consumer society, and the battle between the sexes. Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress go head to head as Marcello and Caroline, contestants in a modern day gladiator game where the object is to kill your opponent in order to obtain money and celebrity. Somehow Petri manages to make a pretty grim narrative — based on Robert Sheckley’s short story, The Seventh Victim — into a bizarre romantic comedy; using the dynamic between rivals Caroline and Marcello, to examine anxieties surrounding sex and gender roles. Caroline, just like her predecessors Adalgisa and Ada, is an intimidating woman. One of the most successful assassins in the game, she uses all her feminine charms to trick, and then kill, the men she hunts in cold blood — one such party piece involves an erotic dance and guns that blast out from a metal bikini. Marcello, blinded to the fact he’s totally out of his depth — if Mombelli’s sin is pride, Marcello’s is vanity — tries to beat Caroline at her own game. Somewhere, among all the plans to perform assassinations live on TV as part of commercials for manly products or tea, and the ridiculous game of oneupmanship between the couple, Petri manages to make a deep statement about the state of Italian culture and conflict between the sexes, fuelled by a rapidly changing social structure.
Ditching the comedy, A ciascuno il suo (We Still Kill the Old Way, 1967) is brutal in delivering its central message. As Italian society became more violent, the director’s work channelled the climate, which was fraught with tension and a building sense of unease. The film is one of three — when set alongside Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, 1970) and Todo modo (1976) — that specifically focuses on the themes of political and religious corruption. Set in a rural community, a young professor, Paolo Laurana, finds himself in the middle of a mystery when his philandering cousin and a companion, are both murdered while out on a hunting trip. Although the director uses the narrative to probe organised crime, mafia connections, and religious and political corruption, the story also allows him to frame Laurana as a typical inetto antihero. The dynamic between Laurana and Luisa (played by Irene Papas), the widow of his cousin’s friend, provides the perfect vehicle for Petri to delve into sexual politics. Laurana is a weak man, who becomes obsessed with the woman, and plays amateur detective in order to win her approval. Luisa, takes control of the situation, easily manipulating him in some of the cruelest ways possible. The outcome is devastating, costing Laurana much more than he bargained for.
Un tranquillo posto di campagna (A Quiet Place in the Country, 1969) continued to investigate themes of cruelty and dominance in sexual politics. Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave, who were a real life couple at the time, take up the roles of an artist Leonardo Ferri and his manager/lover Flavia. The film is a giallo of sorts, which also uses the supernatural to unravel the strange plot that comes underpinned by themes of madness and sexual obsession.
The film begins at a point in Leonardo’s life where he is suffering a creative block that quickly spirals into the mother of all existential crises. From the opening scenes, the friction between Leonardo and Flavia is carved out in uncompromising terms by introducing the two main characters in a staged dream sequence that places the artist bound to chair in a sadomasochistic game set to have deadly consequences. Petri adopts a fluid approach, blurring the lines between nightmare and reality, by using hallucinations, dreams, and flashbacks to weave his wicked tale, within which the relationship between Leonardo and his lover is heavily sexualised — something the director had avoided to a certain degree up until this point.
For Flavia, Leonardo is just a commercial tool. There is money in his art and she knows it. So she indulges his need for peace by renting a ramshackle villa in the middle of nowhere. And while she goes and plays with the adults — art collectors and bourgeois socialites — she leaves Leonardo to his own devices, where he slowly goes insane after becoming obsessed with the ghost of a girl who was killed at the villa. As his mind unravels, he descends into a primitive way of being, becoming animalistic and brutal. However, just like the rest of the inetto, he can’t escape the system, no matter how hard he tries.
Petri elaborated on the theme of sadomasochism for Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) which, according to Gino Moliterno (Senses of Cinema, Issue 65) formed the first part in his Trilogy of Neurosis — with La classe operaia va in paradiso aka The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971) and La proprietà non é più un furto aka Property is No Longer a Theft (1973). Gian Maria Volontè is il Dottore — former head of homicide squad — who, after a promotion, kills his girlfriend and then tests the limits of the law by deliberately leaving clues to his identity as the killer for them to find. Even though the evidence is staring them in the face, his colleagues will not accept the truth about him.
The catalyst for killing his lover, Augusta (Florinda Bolkan), seems to initially stem from their bizarre S&M games; where he fakes murdering her, and photographs staged scenes for both of their sexual arousal. However, even though il Dottore eventually gets the upper hand, it is Augusta who calls all the shots in their relationship. She taunts him, chastises him, beats him, calls him a bambino, emasculates him, takes other lovers, and does everything she can to remind him exactly who is in charge. Driving him to the edge, and often into floods of tears, head of homicide or not, il Dottore is no match for Augusta. After killing her, he cannot get the law to take him seriously either, leaving him trapped as just another cog in the machine, with his masculinity severely compromised.
The concluding two installments of the Trilogy of Neurosis highlight one of the biggest sins of all: greed. Throughout his life and career, Petri had a long standing association with left wing politics, however for La classe operaia va in paradiso aka The Working Class Goes to Heaven, he turned his critical sights on both sides of the worker/industry debate, concluding each was as bad as the other. This approach lost him a lot of support from left wing political parties, but the director stood unrepentant. It was from this point on that he fell out of favour with critics, despite making some of his most interesting work during the latter part of his career.
La classe operaia va in paradiso follows the exploits of factory worker Lulu (Gian Maria Volontè). Lulu is despised by his colleagues because he’s so good at the job, which in turn makes them look slow by comparison, and lowers their bonuses. But when he loses a finger to a machine, he finds himself a poster boy for the union and ongoing strike action. Lulu just wants to find meaning in his life, but now he is without a job his long suffering girlfriend Lidia (Mariangela Melato) — who works hard as a hairdresser — isn’t too enamoured with having to come home to a bunch of student activists camped out in her living room.
Lulu is a typical inetto and wants to be respected in life but isn’t, because he commands no authority. He wants Lidia to love him, yet can’t satisfy her sexually because he is always too tired from work. When he loses his job he can’t support her either and she isn’t interested in his excuses. Meanwhile, his ex-wife lives with another man who his son refers to as dad. Even forcing himself on his ex gets him nowhere, leaving him with nothing more to do than to bawl and whine about how no one takes him seriously. It’s not that Lulu is a bad man. Initially he works hard because it gives him purpose. When that is taken away, and he hits Petri existential crisis mode, he thinks he can find meaning in politics. At the end of the day everyone is just out to use him though. And like so many of the previous films, the narrative moves on full circle to deliver the message: “same shit, different day”.
La proprietà non é più un furto aka Property is No Longer a Theft, takes a slightly different route. Starring Flavio Bucci as Total, the film’s antihero, the director presents us with a protagonist who at least has the balls to make a stand for himself. However, he’s not very good at it, but at least his intentions are honourable. Returning to comedy, Petri wanted to show how “money burns” (Elio Petri: Notes on a Filmmaker, 2005) as a corruptive influence, and takes a slightly unorthodox route to project his statement. And what better way to show this than to have a bank clerk (Total) who is allergic to money? When Total is turned down for a loan by his boss, the hero takes matters into his own hands, leaves his job and wages war on the local butcher (an icon for capitalism) by staging a series of bizarre and increasingly daring raids on his rival to claim what he thinks should be rightfully his: the man’s knife, his hat, his jewels, and finally his woman.
What is really interesting about the film is the fact that the female lead, Anita (Daria Nicolodi’s performance in the role is charged with a glorious sense of libidinal energy), stands as one of the few women in Petri’s films who lacks any power over men. Instead she is a trophy for the butcher — and in one of a series of monologues she describes her body as parts of meat; thus mapping out her position as property. The lack of loyalty is obvious as she makes no resistance when Total comes to claim her. The narrative is littered with strange sex scenes that illustrate this point; for example the Butcher makes Anita ride him while wearing a robber’s stocking mask over her face, or give him oral sex in a packed showing at a porn theatre; her obvious disinterest is written all over her face in these moments. Therefore, while male insecurity is not as clear cut in this case, it is still there. The Butcher wants to own an attractive younger woman. It makes him feel powerful. But he can’t own her completely. Total also wants to possess Anita, but when he takes her, he can’t actually manage to sleep with her, and instead resorts to tearing off her pearl necklace, leaving her naked, splayed out, and unfulfilled, on his bed. The conclusion of the tale is every bit as cynical as all of Petri’s other films, however, this time it comes with a shock surprise.
The director’s penultimate film, Todo modo, would welcome the return of both Marcello Mastroianni and Gian Maria Volontè. The starring duo go head to head in Petri’s most surreal, complex, but rewarding, film. Marcello Mastroianni plays Don Gaetano, a priest in charge of a large underground religious sanctuary, where he welcomes the Prime Minister, M (Gian Maria Volontè), and his party, for a spiritual cleansing bootcamp. During their stay a series of murders kick off, with survivors left to solve the mystery or die trying.
Of all Petri’s work, the last two films contain his most glorious inetto characters. Don Gaetano isn’t one of them. He is a seedy priest, high on power, who likes the pleasures of wearing robes so he can feel the breeze on his undercarriage. He may have some of the traits of his predecessors — especially Marcello’s previous performances in L’assassino (greed, narcissism) and La decima vittima (vanity and the need to be adored) — but he’s certainly no schmiel. That task falls into the hands of Volontè, as M, a prime minister with a penchant for suckling from his wife’s (Mariangela Melato) breast like a baby. The inhabitants of the bunker are under strict instructions for celibacy, and the only women to be found on site are nuns. M has other ideas and smuggles his wife in so that she can bathe him, comfort him, breast feed him and engage in what can only be described as “orgasmic prayer” sessions as he begs for salvation and guidance. Even though the narrative is packed full of sexual tension — much of which happens between the two male co-stars, or M’s wife and Don Gaetano; or includes other strange flavours like self-flagellation from a bare assed Ciccio Ingrassia, playing the priest Voltrano, who provides this highly amusing respite from the murders — M appears impotent on many levels. He may be in charge of the country, but he isn’t able to act like a man in the ways that matter. Instead he’s left to snivel in the arms of his wife, while his colleagues and friends are hacked to bits one by one in the rooms adjoining his.
Impotence and sexuality would form the basis of the plot for Petri’s final film. A bittersweet swansong, Buone notizie (Good News, 1979) is darkly comic, tinged in the sadness of a director who was frustrated and disillusioned by the film industry. Giancarlo Giannini is L’Innominato (the nameless), a man having a bit of a crisis about his marriage and his penis. Firstly, he doesn’t seem to be able to get his young wife, Fedora (Ángela Molina), to act like a traditional wife. She is too busy on her exercise bike to make sure she has his dinner ready on time. So he barges in on a female colleague to ask her why women don’t take him seriously. When he shows her his penis, she just laughs. A lot of women laugh at L’Innominato, in fact. That or cuckold him sexually; this happens with his friend’s wife, who all but forces him into sex, only to humiliate him and send him away; or Fedora, who mounts him in bed one night and teaches him a lesson about what it is like to be a woman. The only way L’Innominato can react is to cry. Cry, bleat, moan, scream to God for the answers. It doesn’t get him anywhere. Just like most of the other Petri men, it just makes things worse. As he struggles to find the truth, all his finds are more questions and an envelope full of scraps of meaningless pieces paper.
While it might all seem very bleak, Petri’s work teaches us some valuable lessons about humanity along the way. He tells us that man may be frail, vain, greedy, lazy, weak, but that’s what makes him human. No one is perfect, and everyone just wants the same thing: to find meaning in life, to be loved, respected, taken seriously. Petri might not have given his characters what they wanted. However, he was, if nothing more, at least true to the cause, in promoting the experience of the working class male as fraught with insecurity and powerlessness. Elio Petri’s inetto is not a “perfect” man, but he is all the more admirable for it, despite his flaws.