‘Illustrious Corpses’: A Mafia Thriller Heavy With Metaphors

At moments approaching majestic, “Illustrious Corpses” is the Italian equivalent to “The Parallax View” and “The Conversation,” the conspiracy thrillers of the Watergate era. New 4K restoration of the 1976 New York Film Festival premiere is playing at Film Forum through October 21.

Francesco Rosi, a political figure in Italian cinema, directs “Illustrious Corpses,” a film with lofty aspirations. When an elderly man visits the sacred mummies of a church catacomb and falls from an assassin’s bullet, he is the first of many judges to be killed in this film’s opening sequence. At the judge’s burial, an orator later declared, “The mafia killed him.” Young protesters in the street chant, “He was a member of the Mafia,” thereby putting forth the film’s specific rationale.

In “Illustrious Corpses,” Leonardo Sciascia, a Sicilian author who frequently wrote about the mafia, uses it as a metaphor in his novels. Sciascia describes “Equal Danger” as “a story about authority everywhere.” Even though Italy isn’t addressed, the actual sites — such as Palermo, Naples, and Rome — aren’t meant to be metaphors.

Rosi’s protagonist, on the other hand, is a useful cliché or abstraction. As for the subsequent murders, it’s up to tough, honourable Inspector Rogas (played by experienced roughneck Lino Ventura).

An existential police investigation takes place amid a backdrop of strikes and demonstrations, all of which are monitored by the state. There are strong hints that there are forces that are not visible to the naked eye. Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor manifests as Max Von Sydow in the role of a judge, establishing a theology of judicial infallibility.

He described “Illustrious Corpses” as “a stunning example of fashionable Italian filmmaking—elegantly composed, breathlessly paced, captured in the gorgeous, dried colours of a landscape in grief for the sun” in his New York Times review in 1976. While the film’s “indictment of the administration” was well-intentioned, he found it depleted in another sense.

Making reference to a bombing campaign by right-wing extremists to destabilise Italy as well as the “historic” compromise reached by the Italian Communist Party and the Christian Democratic government at the time, “Illustrious Corpses” is not only timely, but also very specific in its treatment of these issues.

“The truth isn’t always revolutionary” is a statement connected with Antonio Gramsci, a Marxist philosopher, that concludes the movie more explicitly than the novel.

The film’s satirical gravitas is enhanced by its casting. Two judges from France (Charles Vanel and Alain Cuny) and a minister of security from Spain (Luis Buuel’s frequent alter ego, Fernando Ray) also appear in the film. “Illustrious Corpses” is, as the title suggests, an old man’s world, despite the presence of a group of young rebels.

Only when Tina Aumont (the daughter of camp star Maria Montez) makes a scene-stealing cameo as a witness to murder is the corrupt gerontocracy shaken.

Distinguished Mortal Remains

The Film Forum in Manhattan (www.filmforum.org) will show the film till October 21.