With the exception of his blistering Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (at Film Forum through April 9), Elio Petri’s work is barely known here. MOMA’s two-week retro fills in the near total oeuvre of the man his compatriots labeled “the Political Director”—10 of the 11 features he completed before his death in 1982 are on view.
Petri was a member of the Pasolini-Bertolucci-Bellocchio generation concerned with exploring the structure of society. For Petri in particular, cinema was a means to critique power and the structures that exercise it—religion, the police, politicians, the factory—and to question the assumptions of bourgeois life. With The Tenth Victim (1965), an atypical sci-fi foray into mainstream entertainment, he posits a Pop Art future in which war has been outlawed, replaced by games of legalized murder, played out for high stakes before TV cameras. Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress star as charismatic competing killers (her secret weapon is a bullet-firing bra), but when they fall in love, the initially promising Bond spoof devolves into just another chapter in the battle of the sexes.
In A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), devilishly handsome Franco Nero appears as a painter alienated by city life who moves into a lonely villa in search of peace and nature. Instead, he finds himself obsessed with a nymphomaniac ghost that comes with the premises. Real and unreal, past and present, get entangled in this creepy Gothic tale, a riveting study of encroaching madness—it’s Petri’s most underrated film.
His most overrated is surely The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971), a strident think piece about a factory worker who becomes radicalized after he leaves a finger in his machine. Even less convincing, Property Is No Longer Theft (1973) is an absurdist satire of capitalism and corporate thievery, devoid of visual style. For anyone not well versed in Italian politics of the period, Petri’s detestation of the Christian Democratic Party will be the only clear element in the intriguing but frustrating Todo Modo (1976). This fanciful fiction concerns a meeting of key members of the ruling class during which everyone mysteriously croaks. The superb Gian Maria Volonté does what he can with a character apparently modeled on Aldo Moro, the Christian Democratic leader who was killed by the Red Brigades. MOMA would do well to consider handing out detailed program notes for this curious kettle of fish.