Taking the term “laid back” to the extreme degree, TV’s DETECTIVE MONTALBANO (aka Il commissario Montalbano in its native Italy), now on two new double-disc sets from MHZ Networks' International Mystery division, stands as a shining testament to the adage, “Let the chips fall where they may.”
I cherish MONTALBANO for its steadfast non-negotiable warped sense of priorities; trust me, this is one helluva culture-shock WTF experience. The title role, superbly essayed by Luca Zingaretti, has been a top ratings champ on RAI-TV since its debut in 1999. It's easy to see why.
Montalbano’s function toward the grossly aberrant personalities who populate his vacation-gorgeous seaside jurisdiction of Vigata is, of course, to utilize his astute sleuthing skills, but additionally to give the perps enough rope and thereby enjoy the show as things naturally “fix” themselves.
The police in toto are in perfect synch with Montalbano's comprehension of law and order. Usually in a crime TV series (from ANY part of the world), inside corruption would be a key plot element of an episode. Here, it's a given – and handled (or, to be specific, NOT handled) like an everyday occurrence. Montalbano and his squad have more important matters to attend to. These include the town's endless array of beautiful women, the fine cuisine offered up by the picturesque eateries and, oh yeah, solving a pressing crime or two.
How so? When a lovely possible felon asks Montalbano to falsify evidence, the lax detective momentarily pauses before answering, “Eh, why not?” In the world according to Montalbano, rules, if not meant to be broken, are certainly there to be bent. And, if the body asking this favor is lustily beautiful...so much the better? But this wily seen-it-all shamus isn't outwardly dishonest; he knows that withholding clues and/or facts won't stop him from eventually solving the case. So, eh, why not?
Montalbano also has no time to waste with silly things like procedure. Questions like “Was this a crime of passion?” are never asked for the simple reason that, in Montalbano's way of thinking EVERY crime is a crime of passion. And in Vigata, he's always proven right.
Furthermore, everyone is connected in one way or another. By that I mean most of Montalbano's sources have in the past been arrested by the detective; some are now, via osmosis, in his employ (his housekeeper/cook is the mother of a villainous son, who often helps the policeman track down information). Oh, and did I mention that the Sicilian suburb of Vigata is a Mafia town, run by constantly combating “families?” A nuisance to say the least. For example, when a crime scene is interrupted and corrupted by a carload of machine-gun-wielding thugs, the investigators wait for them move on and shrug, “Hmmm, another mob skirmish.” Later, in his office, Montalbano receives a phone call from his key team members who tell him that the earlier drive-by shooting had nothing to do with the murder investigation. “Eh, as I thought,” smiles the detective, calmly hanging up the receiver before exiting the precinct to gorge himself on a belated lunch.
Before the antipasto gets warm (or cold), let me introduce viewers to the roster of regulars who inhabit the chief inspector's world. First and foremost is the series’ recent addition of his off again/on again lover Livia (Lina Perned). Their open relationship has been percolating for years; commitment issues (she prefers her big-city career hundreds of miles away; he is reluctant to give up his authoritarian position) fit the couple like a pair of designer gloves (sometimes not too comfortable, but damn they look good).
Depending on their moods, sex is as important as food – although often confusing. Awaking at daybreak, Montalbano nudges her a “good morning” before leaving for work. Livia sleepily responds, “No, Carlo, not behind.” This is particularly disturbing since Montalbano’s first name is Salvo. In a switch of the tables, when the inspector is about to seal the deal with a stunning suspect, Livia's uncanny long-distance phone call inquires if he's up to anything. “Not yet,” he honestly replies.
Montalbano's staff is like an amoral adult version of The Keystone Kops. Fazio (Peppino Mazzotta) is a too-eager-to-please know-it-all who strives to solve the community's crime problems with a by-the-book dedication. He's naturally considered a joke. Mimi (Cesare Bocci) is the group's lothario, generally sent undercover in its most literal definition...to romance the ladies linked to current nefarious activities (most effectively, pardon my redundancy, as a sleazy lawyer). When asked to graphically describe his latest suspect's penetrating interrogation, Mimi responds with an offended, “Never on the first date. I'm a gentleman.” To which the bored superior instantly loses interest.
Montalbano's superiors represent, not surprisingly, the top echelon of malfeasance; should events not go to their plan, they're always prepared, at the drop of a hat, to toss the detective and his team under the bus. Or at least lam it out of town until whatever it is blows over. Unfortunately, this depiction of Italian law is no mere parody. Check out Douglas Preston’s and Mario Spezi’s shocking book The Monster of Florence, if you think I'm kidding...or, if you’re not so ambitious, simply YouTube clips of the Amanda Knox debacle. It's been said that the Catholic diocese adored the Father Ted series; I've heard that the Italian constabulary worships MONTALBANO. Makes sense.
Mio perferito supporting player is Marcello Perracchio as Dr. Pasquano, the elderly, rotund respectable-looking M.E. While renowned as the duchy’s forensic genius, he's also a vile, foul-mouthed rascal. “Hey, Montalbano, you prick!” is his standard eyebrow-raising greeting to the detective. What follows is a barrage of epithets so disgusting that even I won't repeat them here. I love the bastard!
The final (barely) human puzzle piece to Montalbano's unit is their paragon of ineffectuality Agente Catarella (Angelo Russo). Calling Catarella a low-grade moron would be a compliment (he's so ineffectual that even the village idiots consider him an embarrassment). Within the course of the average workday, the buffoon mangles the Italian language (getting suspects’/officials’ names hilariously wrong), loses relevant evidence and neglects to inform Montalbano of major breaks in a case. And he sweats way too much. Long story short, Agente Catarella makes Henry Armetta look like Noel Coward. Okay, everyone does one thing well, and Catarella’s prime triumph comprises the (sort-of) mastering of the office computer system – which he uses to play video games. Normally, when an employer catches a worker engaged in such no-no on-the-clock enterprises, the drone would be deemed instant toast. Not so with Montalbano. After brusquely demanding what the bungler is up to, the detective inspector pushes him aside and starts to play the games himself (fortunately this newly-gained knowledge helps in solving a case).
Providentially, Montalbano's crime-solving and romance expertise rarely get in the way of his number one purpose in life: food. Most days, the epicurean can be found sitting by the veranda of his treasured bistro, dining on exquisite seafood. When confronted by his officers, suspects, lovers (or all of the above), his first reaction is to inquire if they'd like to join him. The answer, one of the show's running gags, is to always turn him down – the implication being that Montalbano's rapturous descriptions of palette-tasting delights will drive his companions crazy (eating is, as the inspector is apt to divulge, like making love to a beautiful woman – two pursuits Montalbano excels in). Or maybe he just has lousy table manners.
The four feature-length TV movies included in the two DETECTIVE MONTALBANO sets (episodes 23-26) represent the program’s most recent cases, and are guaranteed to addict mystery fans to the quirky appeal of the series.
In Angelica's Smile, a slew of high-profile robberies lead to murder, a taunting series of Jack the Ripper-type letters, the uncovering of a vicious loan shark, a local puppet show and a startling shooting in broad daylight. When a rich couple's intimate (and lethal) anniversary celebration is revealed to have been a group sex party, the reasonable explanation is that “...they like to celebrate with company.”
Mob kidnapping, petty thievery and extortion bombings surround the insidious Mirror Effect. Montalbano's patience is put to the test when a prime suspect nearly kills the inspector in an unrelated instance of road rage. That a charred corpse turns up in burnt-out car only adds to the mystery, temporarily lightened by Pasquano's salutations to the beleaguered inspector: “...when I see you, my heart swells – and so do my balls!”
“Do we ALWAYS have to get something wrong?!” ponders Montalbano in A Voice in the Night. Good question, as it makes the squad wonder if a suicide may have been a murder. Ditto a missing bloody bathrobe, the disappearance of a beauty (who may have been the lover of her husband's father) and the possible involvement of Islamic terrorists! Even the detective's sweet and sour relationship with his TV news chum Niccolo (Roberto Nobile) may prove more damning than helpful. At least there's lunch!
My favorite in the quartet is A Ray of Light, as it incorporates unexplained mysticism into its mystery. Montalbano's nightmare of a lone coffin in a field is somehow tied to Livia's sudden depression, which brings her back to Vigata. How it all connects to a Tunisian illegal arms faction, a lesbian affair between two dazzling townies, a scumbag suspect's justification of spousal abuse (“I beat her because she was raped”), rivalry with the big city terrorist squad and a mob-style execution makes for one fascinatin’ web of intrigue. When Montalbano resorts to subterfuge without informing his staff, Mimi's angry “Why didn't you let us know?!” reaction is undercut by the inspector's nonchalant “I want you to be spontaneous.”
DETECTIVE MONTALBANO's mass appeal is its reliance upon substance over plot. The characters' vivid personalities carry the narratives – so big kudos to the cast, and especially the great Zingaetti. Underlining the above are the scripts, based on the popular best-sellers by author Andrea Camilleiri (who also wrote each episode, along with Francisco Bruni and Salvatore De Mola), which bristle with sarcastic humor that seamlessly teeter-totters from subtle double entendre to broad slapstick. Of course, this makes the occasional jolting violence and suspense all the more electrifying. Further credit must be given to the savvy direction by Alberto Sironi, who handles the task in the best tradition of classic 1960s Italian comedy...with just a touch of Simenon...and a pinch of Julia Child.
Franco Lecca's cinematography is awesome – so spectacular that I can only imagine that viewers will want to vacation in the resort town (even with all that annoying killing, bombing and mob retribution). The opening credits alone will have you on auto-dial to your travel agent (the fictitious town of Vigata is, in reality, the coastal community of Ragusa).
The DVDs, presented in excellent widescreen 16 x 9 transfers, burst with sharp, sun-drenched colors, a veritable Mediterranean holiday. This is complemented by the stereo-surround Italian audio (with English subtitles) showcasing the aforementioned soundtrack and atmospheric background ocean surf effects.
Extras encompass brief interviews with guest casts, regulars and crew. Some of these are startling in their own right, notably a segment devoted to costar Pernad. I was taken aback to hear her speak perfect English, but not as much as when she revealed that she speaks little to no Italian. Shocked herself that she was offered the part of Livia, the Scandinavian actress reveals that she receives her scripts in English, and apparently plays her role phonetically with occasional dubbing. Hey, since her chemistry with the charismatic Zingaretti is like nitro and glycerin, “Eh, why not?”
DETECTIVE MONTALBANO, EPISODES 23 & 24. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]. Stereo-surround [Italian w/English subtitles]. MHZ Networks/RAI Trade. CAT # 16751. SRP: $29.95.
DETECTIVE MONTALBANO, EPISODES 25 & 26. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]. Stereo-surround [Italian w/English subtitles]. MHZ Networks/RAI Trade. CAT # 16752. SRP: $29.95.