The provocative Italian filmmaker Elio Petri’s most internationally acclaimed work is this remarkable, visceral, Oscar-winning thriller. Petri maintains a tricky balance between absurdity and realism in telling the Kafkaesque tale of a Roman police inspector (A Fistful of Dollars’s Gian Maria Volonté, in a commanding performance) investigating a heinous crime—which he committed himself. Both a penetrating character study and a disturbing commentary on the draconian crackdowns by the Italian government in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Petri’s kinetic portrait of surreal bureaucracy is a perversely pleasurable rendering of controlled chaos.
A recently promoted police inspector (Gian Maria Volonté) kills his mistress (Florinda Bolkan), and then covers up his involvement in the crime. He insinuates himself into the investigation, planting clues to steer his subordinate officers toward a series of other suspects, including the woman’s gay husband and a student radical. He then exonerates the other suspects and leads the investigators toward him, in order to prove that he is “above suspicion” and can get away with anything, even while being investigated. In the end, he confesses to the crime in front of his superiors – who refuse to believe him. Sure that he is safe, he recants his confession, and receives the approval of the police commissioner.