Classic Films

Illustrious Corpses Puts American Political Films to Shame

Illustrious Corpses (via IMDb)
This 1976 thriller takes viewers inside Francesco Rosi’s political paranoia.

Why don’t we have politically informed film artists? That question is sparked by KINO’s Blu-Ray release of Francesco Rosi’s Illustrious Corpses, from 1976, one of the countless Italian art films made from a political perspective but that transcend politics.

In Rosi’s subtly spectacular drama, Inspector Amerigo Rogas (Lino Ventura) investigates the ongoing assassinations of several federal judges (each played by a famous European film star). As one broad-daylight killing follows another, Rogas must consider a number of possibilities behind the mysterious murders. The Mafia? Radical student protesters? Tension builds, and paranoia becomes the only rationalization.

Rosi doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out, unlike Hollywood’s current political filmmakers who blame, take sides, and pontificate. The difference comes from the sense of history that weighs on the events of Rosi’s thriller. It’s immediately apparent from the opening scene in which Vargas (Charles Vanel), one of the doomed judges, explores the catacombs beneath the courthouses, where the mummies of ancient magistrates are exhibited. It’s said that Judge Vargas loved talking to the mummies. “The dead would reveal the living,” divulging family and national secrets. And Rosi zooms in to each eyeless, yawning, rotted chasm.

The film’s original Italian title Cadaveri Eccellenti mocks how the past haunts the present, another ingenious difference from the recent spate of American political films (the atrocious Judas and the Black Messiah and Vice, for two examples) that use the past sarcastically to justify fashionable political attitudes. But Rosi knowingly follows Inspector Rogas through modern Italy’s cityscape and villages, where the Godfather-like melody of marching funeral bands behind each judge’s cortège sounds like a dirge for a collapsed society.

Illustrious Corpses just finished an engagement of its 4K restoration at Film Forum, a politically engaged venue where the film’s American title suggested that Rosi’s concept offers an object lesson in political reasoning. It should be instructive to artist-activist hyphenates and their followers who lack Rosi’s long-established appreciation of how life reflects politics. The richness of Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, The Moment of Truth, Hands Across the City, and Illustrious Corpses comes from stories that are all about the shaping of political consciousness. This was the great lesson of the early Italian neorealist films (Open City, Bicycle Thieves, Shoeshine, La Terra Trema) whose compassion drove viewers toward political enlightenment.

By 1976, after brilliant agitprop films such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers and Costa-Gavras’s Z, Rosi’s films began to question the era’s obvious cynicism. Illustrious Corpses takes a shrewd approach to the same reformist paranoia that was also apparent in Coppola’s The Conversation (which is almost a companion piece to this). Here, Rosi stylizes political paranoia into thriller extremes — his kinetic energy clearly influenced the montage in Oliver Stone’s JFK. The visual abstraction of each kill-shot sequence questions the institutions we inherit but no longer trust, revealing a new instability that makes this film especially relevant today.

Rosi intensifies the suspicion we feel we about our corrupt media and bewildering political class that lie to us, keep its secrets, and refuse to hold accountable the malign forces they front for and excuse. (Max Von Sydow plays a judge who cautions “the judiciary is strong, but parliament is weak.”) An extraordinary sequence of Rogas visiting the justice ministry shows multiple black-and-white monitors, instruments of government surveillance that are part of the media deception that obstructs Rogas’s investigation. It’s underscored by a deceptive, socially divisive message from the president.

For perfect contrast, KINO has filmmaker Alex Cox (Sid and Nancy, Repo Man, Straight to Hell) providing DVD commentary that is an aural and informational feast, giving the film political and historical context. Perhaps more than Rosi’s other masterpieces, Illustrious Corpses puts America’s activist filmmakers to shame. Italian film masters investigate fundamental values: moral, spiritual, and personal more than political. America’s political poseurs have much to learn from them.


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Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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