An old man, in a dark coat, inspects a row of dignitaries, doffing his hat in their presence. Like him, they are formally clad, but their robes have seen better days. No words are exchanged, yet we sense an air of fellow-feeling. To say that the visitor sees eye to eye with the dignitaries would be going too far, for these figures have no eyes at all—only holes, punched into the parchment of their skin. We are in a crypt, in Palermo, lined with the long dead; most of them are propped up in niches, mummified but upright, as if they still have business to conduct. The old man, having paid his respects, walks out into a bright spring day. As he pauses to sniff a spray of white jasmine blooming on a wall, there is a gunshot, and he falls to the ground. He has joined the ranks of the departed.
Such is the unforgettable opening of “Illustrious Corpses,” a new print of which screens at Film Forum from October 8th. The director is Francesco Rosi, who was born in Naples in 1922 and died in 2015 in Rome. Thanks to movies like “Salvatore Giuliano” (1962) and “The Mattei Affair” (1972), he is honored as a maestro of political cinema. “Illustrious Corpses” was first released in Italy in 1976, during the anni di piombo (the “years of lead”), a time riven by social unrest and convulsions of violence. If the film pertained solely to the troubles of its period, however, it would have long since dated and paled; in the event, it comes up frighteningly fresh.
The jasmine-scented killing is just the start. The old man in the crypt was a judge; so is the next victim, and the one after that. Looks like a case for Inspector Rogas (Lino Ventura), who suspects a personal vendetta—someone who was wrongly imprisoned, say, and wants to strike back at the law. But the membrane between the private and the public, in Rosi’s work, is forever porous, and Rogas becomes aware of larger and murkier stirrings. Is that the rumble of tanks, massing on the streets, or is he imagining things? And is he crazy or wise to bed down in his car, with a pistol loaded and cocked?
This is grown-up filmmaking, of a now unfamiliar strain: ominous, oblique, unrushed, and altogether grave. The source is a short novel by the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, who used crime fiction to distill his scorn and despair at the status quo. Rosi, sticking close to Sciascia, preserves the chilling scene in which a senior judge (Max von Sydow) informs Rogas that judicial error does not and cannot exist. The passing of a sentence, the judge argues, can no more be reversed than the act of Holy Communion.
Yet “Illustrious Corpses,” its title notwithstanding, is more gripping than cynical or morbid, and Rosi is on constant alert for signs of life and change. Thus, after a funeral cortège has traversed a town square, we get to linger, noticing the piles of garbage and the boys who kick a soccer ball around. Later, Inspector Rogas wanders through plants in a yard, picking and eating peas from a pod; as he talks to the owner about his lemon trees, the camera rises over their shoulders to peer at modern tower blocks, stacked up on the far side of an overpass. New jostles old; enigmas outnumber solutions; and a double murder takes place in a museum, with bodies felled beneath antique marble statues. Back to the realms of the dead.
The movie would not be half as plausible without the great Lino Ventura in the leading role. He was a wrestler before he became a star (his face always looks pre-bashed), and the rooted solidity of his bearing earns our instinctive trust. Hence the moral authority that he lent to “Army of Shadows” (1969) as a sustaining figure in the French Resistance; hence, in “Illustrious Corpses,” our realization that, if Rogas, of all people, can grow paranoid, then there must be something rotten in the state; and hence, most remarkable, the effect of an appearance by Ventura on French television, in 1965. Speaking calmly about his daughter Linda, “a child not like others,” who had a mental impairment, he requested not pity but “justice and human warmth.” A taboo was broken, and the outcome was Perce-Neige (or “snowdrop”)—a charity that he and his wife founded the following year, and that today runs thirty-eight centers for the disabled. If you question whether celebrities can, or should, deploy their fame for a serious cause, the answer is Lino Ventura. Despite Sciascia’s acute diagnosis of society’s ills, and Rosi’s unearthing of conspiracies, good deeds still get done, somehow or other, in the midst of a wicked world.