ILLUSTRIOUS CORPSES (Francesco Rosi, 1976)

The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

The same year that the U.S. produced its middling, indifferently acted All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976), another film exemplified the conspiratorial political thriller at full-throttle. While police inspector Rogas (Lino Ventura, in his finest performance) investigates a high court murder, other judges, prosecutors and magistrates continue to be killed. Dark, convoluted, blurring the line between paranoiac perception and a reality suited to paranoia, Francesco Rosi’s Cadaveri eccelenti makes its way through a sludge of suspects, beginning with the Mafia, before lighting on right-wing assassination squads—the sort (though not in Italy) that the U.S. government is routinely fond of supporting.
     Rosi once described the film as “a journey through the monsters and monstrosities of power,” and along the way both Left and Right are in for close scrutiny. But the particularity of such actual case studies as Rosi’s The Mattei Affair (1972) yields here to a more unbounded, featureless province, that of the waking nightmare. Illustrious Corpses, based on a novel by Leonardo Sciascia, is Kafkaesque.
     This kind of film hews to a line of unearthing the truth. Fittingly, this one begins in catacombs, amidst mummified corpses, suggesting the shadow of mortality dogging us and pressing our activities, including insane political acts, and introducing a permeative claustrophobic atmosphere. We feel “buried alive”; Rogas becomes buried in the case.
     As assassinations mount, Rosi investigates their cost to society. Indeed, the horror of the unfolding event threatens to sweep away society’s institutions. Like a cancer, the conspiracy has a life of its own—a power to effect social consequences beyond the grasp of all its members.
     Rosi risks Kramertosis by casting Charles Vanel, Max von Sydow and Alain Cuny as legal V.I.P.s, but his taut control, not to mention gifted actors, keeps this a burrowing, enveloping film.

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