TODO MODO (Elio Petri, 1976)

From Leonardo Sciascia’s novel, Elio Petri’s penultimate film, Todo modo, is a deliriously funny satire—although spoilsports may carp, given that the principal target, Aldo Moro, here called M., was murdered for real, by Red Brigades members, two years hence. Moro was president of the Christian Democrats; goodness knows whether Petri’s incendiary film contributed to his nasty end.
     The film centers on a gathering at a monastic retreat; those addicted to their power have been obliged to participate in “spiritual exercises” (such as fasting) officiated by Father Gaetano (Marcello Mastroianni, concentrated, brilliantly intense). Petri skewers both religion and politics, clergy and politicians. At one point Gaetano asks M. whether he is even capable of relinquishing power. M. (Gian Maria Volontè in his weirdest performance—as unflattering a portrait of Moro as one can imagine): “To whom? There’s no one better. I think I have a mission to accomplish.” This, of course, is always a politician’s statesmanly rationalization for keeping a grip on power. Pointedly, M. adds, “What are we without you, and what are you without us?” Indeed, if the priest’s death is not murder but suicide, which is the official pronouncement that we don’t quite accept, then it may be the result of his deciding that he also has held onto power too long.
     Indeed, persons are, one by one, ending up dead—gruesomely murdered—inside the monastery. (Outside, an “epidemic” is taking lives.) We think we know who the killer is; but we’re thrown an Agatha Christie curve at the last.
     Some of the film is either slack or clunky, but much more is ingeniously claustrophobic: catacombs, low ceilings, frames crowded with two persons close to one another, human images trapped on closed-circuit television monitors: all a metaphor for Italy’s petrified political state.

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