By Paul-John Ramos
While living as a teenager in New York City during the early 90s, my father visited a friend of ours who came from Abruzzo, on the southeastern coast of Italy, many years before. When my father arrived to this gentleman’s apartment, he was eating dinner in front of his television. The TV was tuned to a local educational station and an RAI news broadcast was on. As the reporter provided voiceover, a large group of well-dressed men was being led out of a building by police. My father, not able to speak Italian, asked what was going on. “Big problems,” our friend said. “The whole government is in jail.”
These problems didn’t involve the entire government, but they might as well have. In February 1992, Italian law enforcement began a series of arrests and trials featuring public officials who received trillions of lire in exchange for municipal contracts. The investigations, which were known as Mani pulite (‘Clean hands’), put half of the country’s parliament under indictment while hundreds of local administrative councils were disbanded and a number of Italy’s multitudinous political parties disappeared or rebranded themselves to cover their tracks.
Unlike The Godfather’s Brylcreem and tuxedo stylings, it is films like Confessione di un commissario di polizia al procuratore della repubblica (literally Confession of a Police Commissioner to the Public Prosecutor or Confessions of a Police Captain in its international release) that immediately call to mind these foul little details of a society inundated with organized crime. Films like those of The Godfather series, The Untouchables, and Goodfellas shed light upon the Italian organized crime world, but they cater to Hollywood glossiness. Confessions of a Police Captain, an international co-production made in Italy around the same time as Coppola’s first Godfather, is quite something else. With masterful direction by Damiano Damiani and writing by Damiani and Salvatore Laurani, Confessions shows the Mafia’s workings from a more naturalistic angle, as something like a maddening disease that spreads through all facets of the community.
Confessions of a Police Captain was hugely successful upon its release in 1971, earning praise from critics and reaching audiences in many countries over the years that followed. The film and Damiano Damiani were awarded one of the Moscow International Film Festival’s Golden Prizes and Franco Nero, who took part in organizing the film and played a starring role alongside Martin Balsam, received a Golden Goblet for Best Actor from the Italian press. Fifty years later, one can still feel the impact that Confessions must have shaken audiences with during its first screenings. While the Mafia continues to be a subject of morbid fascination in cinema, Damiani’s thriller drags the topic to a much grimier level of reality, where political and judicial leaders tend to wear two different faces, innocent and not very innocent people become entangled in mob leaders’ fatal webs, and average men and women live under the shadows of crime syndicates that are able to do what they want, when they want.
Filmed on location in Palermo, this sordid and depressing film opens with Commissioner Giacomo Bonavia (Martin Balsam, A Thousand Clowns, All the President’s Men) visiting a mental hospital to check on the status of Michele Li Puma, a younger male patient who has criminal history and, funnily enough, an obsession with cleanliness. After what seems a perfunctory talk with the hospital’s doctors, Bonavia orders them to release Li Puma (Adolfo Lastretti, Shaft in Africa) from care. Not much time passes before their releasee carries out a hit on Ferdinando Lomunno, a property developer with known Mafia connections, by visiting his office disguised as a policeman and with a concealed machine gun. However, Lomunno (Luciano Catenacci, Almost Human) has been warned of this plan and replaced by three gunmen who die with Li Puma in the ensuing shootout.
Bonavia was tracking Li Puma after his release and it is obvious that circumstances for these killings were by the commissioner’s design. Prosecuting attorney Traini (Franco Nero, Django, Camelot) begins his work and figures out Bonavia’s role in the mayhem rather quickly. Bonavia has a fraught history with Lomunno (called ‘Dubrosio’ in English language dubs), through which he arrested the mobster on three occasions and saw him walk free each time after witnesses were bribed, warned off, physically coerced, or worse. As a young lawyer who holds unquestioning faith in the justice system, Traini has no patience for renegade tactics and is soon at odds with Bonavia’s age-hardened views. He works to remove Bonavia from his job and rid the police of his cynicism, while the commissioner holds Traini off by threatening to spread rumors about his sexual orientation, a loaded issue in Roman Catholic Italy.
There is one thing that Bonavia and Traini share, however, which is the hope to put Ferdinando Lomunno behind bars for a very long time. To do this, they will need witness testimony, which is hard to obtain in a society where the Mafia rule over average citizens with fear. Hope for an indictment is kept alive by Serena Li Puma (Marilù Tolo, Candy, Bluebeard), Michele Li Puma’s wife, who has intimate knowledge of Lomunno and his roles in the city’s deep-seated corruption. The question is whether or not they can keep Serena out of harm’s way long enough for Lomunno to be tried, a real challenge when having to deal with the billionaire’s group of thugs.
Thought a classic from the era of international co-productions in Italy, Confessions of a Police Captain is an exceptional film that stands high above those countless Mafia-themed knockoffs and offers hard truths that may not be so readily apparent in its famous Hollywood cousins. This film’s atmosphere is dingy, menacing, and thoroughly unpleasant – one in which the mentally ill plod through asylum hallways, blood is shed by Mafia enforcers and petty thieves on a weekly basis, and no public figure is beyond organized crime’s extensive reach. The film seems to equate Italy’s widespread crime with an insanity that is transmittable and spreads like the common cold. An interesting contrast, in fact, is made between the mental hospital early on and the inside of a prison towards its conclusion, which might imply that there is a larger portion of society who are mentally ill but in the regular prison system, simply because there aren’t enough hospitals to keep up with them.
As would be expected, Martin Balsam, Franco Nero, and the veteran supporting cast give superb performances. Balsam is remembered mainly as a supporting actor, having won an Oscar and earned his major award nominations for such roles. It’s unfortunate that he is not given more recognition for his times when playing a lead, such as the cynical and revenge-driven Bonavia. Balsam’s snarky attitude and way of speaking (he dubs his own voice in the film’s English version) is an ideal fit for this policeman who has become convinced that honest work will not get you anywhere. When portraying Traini, Nero has to smoothen out the rugged masculinity seen in characters like Django and inhabit a refined but driven lawyer whose confidence in himself and those around him fade with each passing hour. In comparison to Bonavia, Traini’s idealism looks hopelessly naïve and to the point of delusion. The exchanges between them – sometimes under calm conditions, often heated – give a solid core to the plotline and have some of the best dialogue from those years. The supporting parts by Luciano Catenacci, Marilù Tolo, and Claudio Gora as Malta, the chief prosecutor and Traini’s boss, are solidly played.
The excellent score is by Riz Ortolani, also known for films like Mondo Cane, The Valachi Papers, and From Hell to Victory (Contro 4 bandiere). Regardless of whether you like the film or not, Ortolani’s soundtrack demands a listening of its own. The photography by Claudio Ragona (Ladies and Gentlemen, Goodnight) is appropriately somber and editor Antonio Siciliano (What Have You Done to Solange?) makes good choices in assembling Damiani’s narrative. As a piece of trivia, Mickey Knox, who translated the screenplay and coordinated the English dubbing for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966, served as dialogue coach, interpreter, and dubbing voice on this production.
An attendee of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, Damiano Damiani made a foray into cartooning and comic book writing during the 1940s before taking up screenwriting and, ultimately, directing. Damiani is probably best known in English-speaking countries for the 1982 horror sequel Amityville II: The Possession, but he was far more. While proving himself across a variety of genres – a gift that was essential for directors to survive in the Italian film industry – Damiani is remembered in realist-naturalist circles for his stories dealing with crime and its vicious effects on the surrounding world. Before Confessions of a Police Captain, he engaged audiences with The Day of the Owl (Il giorno della civetta), depicting a policeman’s futile attempts to get information on a Mafia-sanctioned killing. Nero and Claudia Cardinale received David di Donatello Awards, the highest Italian film prize, for their lead roles and the film was named co-best for 1968 by Donatello voters. Damiani would explore similar themes with his prison drama The Case is Closed, Forget It, his turn on Mafia filmmaking How to Kill a Judge, and the first season of RAI’s TV series La piovra (The Octopus), which became popular in many countries. Case and Judge also starred Nero, with whom he had a productive relationship into the mid-1970s.
Confessions of a Police Captain is one of those films in which Damiani tries to peel the scales from his audiences’ eyes and show how infected life can become when society’s criminal elements go unchecked. In Traini, we watch a righteous prosecutor’s faith and confidence dissolve until he is left with no tangible reason for believing in the system that he has devoted so much time and energy to. Though he is digging to the bottom of things, it is actually the top that he should look at, as everyone from the highest positions of leadership downward are coddling mob leaders and letting them carry on business as usual. The film, lasting an hour and 46 minutes, ends with an unsettling image of Traini and his supervising prosecutor Malta and one of the most memorable final lines in crime moviemaking. It leaves one wondering if the former’s career has reached a premature end and if there is a way for society at large to undo this mess.
For those interested in the crime genre or international co-productions, Confessions is highly recommended and has fairly wide availability as a DVD for purchase on the Internet. With more than enough Mafia-themed films of varying quality around, this take by Damiani is of high artistic merit and well above the level of potboiler or cheap exploitation.