Actor Luca Zingaretti has a knack for choosing film projects with interesting perspectives on Italian history. By The Light Of Day (2005) and Borsellino: The 57 Days (2012) explore the Mafia’s turbulent years during the 1990s, Cefalonia (2005) examines Italy’s 1943 peace treaty with the allied powers and Perlasca (2002) tells the story of the Italian cattle dealer who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. In Calling Inspector Marotta (Il Furto del Tesoro), Zingaretti launches himself further back in time, to Italy’s 1920s and fascist Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s attempts to crack down on Mafia activity.
Calling Inspector Marotta, the story of a Mafia infiltrator in 1920’s Rome, is a straightforward, slow burning thriller inspired by the real-life robbery of St Peter’s Vatican treasure. Spread across two discs in the recently released Luca Zingaretti Collection, this sprawling noir-esque tale swerves the tropes of Hollywood heists. Positioning itself inside a genre which often relies on a ‘catch them in the nick of time’ scenario to create tension, Calling Inspector Marotta instead chooses to explore the calculation and manipulation that exists on both sides of the law, delving into the political and international implications of Rome’s criminal underbelly.
Calling Inspector Marotta doesn’t devote itself entirely to predictable gangster activities either. The film opens with a number of rapes and murders having occurred, the victims are young girls and it becomes clear that the police are looking for a paedophile. Despite the hideous nature of these crimes, it’s the rumour of the large scale Vatican robbery that jeopardises global perceptions of the city in its Holy Year.
Marotta has just foiled a vigilante attack on a group of anarchists, proving he won’t stand for any law breaking, even if it works in the government’s favour. As such, his heroic action is rewarded with disciplinary proceedings. Marotta’s squeaky-clean personality is perhaps the most implausible aspect of Alberto Sironi’s film (the director would go on to work with Zingaretti again in the Montalbano series which shares a similar detective theme).
Only when the story introduces Lulu – a needy socialite with mobster connections – does Marotta reveal his flaws. Already married, Marotta’s infiltration requires him to befriend Lulu, a process that becomes closer to seduction than the inspector intends. Here Sironi conjures a beguiling, simmering sexual tension. Zingaretti impressively negotiates the moral complexities, giving us a Marotta who is both deeply uncomfortable, yet emboldened by desire and its reciprocation. But it’s Meret Becker as Lulu who steals these taut scenes, her clingy, weepy, desperate flirtations revealing Lulu’s complex, troubled past.
Despite Sironi’s often beautiful shot composition – such as street scenes framed by rustling leaves – Calling Inspector Marotta fails to capture the 1920s in the sumptuous opulence we’ve come to expect from films like The Great Gatsby, Some Like It Hot and even Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris. Too often the bright interior lighting evokes an air of modernity and hints at the constructed sets beneath. Arriving ten years after Italy’s Calling Inspector Marotta, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire creates a more visually convincing twenties. But in light of the latter’s massive budgets (the Scorsese directed pilot famously cost $18 million), Calling Inspector Marotta’s visual compromises are easy to forgive. Less easy to overlook is the limited space Sironi’s gives to the complexities of mob relationships, especially considering the film’s 180 minute runtime.
This isn’t Calling Inspector Marotta’s only flaw. Clichés plague the first thirty minutes of the film, from cheesy romantic dialogue between Marotta and his wife to awkward voiceover. “It would change my whole life”, says Marotta in a clumsy, audience baiting one liner. As if gaining confidence, the writers (Franco Marotta and Laura Toscana) and Sironi eventually drop the clichés and instead comprehensively weave in an abundance of historical and global references which give the film its gravity. The interaction between Police tactics, the media and the new fascist regime is particularly striking.
Calling Inspector Marotta does not pretend to be fast, tense or outrageously exciting – the robbery itself sees the criminals load jewels into bags steadily and without panic. Instead, Calling Inspector Marotta offers viewers a series of moral conundrums intensified by the changing political context of 1920s Italy.
Calling Inspector Marotta is available as a single release from Odyssey DVD or as part of the Luca Zingaretti Collection (a five film set also containing Borsellino: The 57 Days, By the Light Of Day, Perlasca and Cefalonia).