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Fans of Sidney Lumet’s 1973 Serpico, starring Al Pacino and his beautiful beard, likely hold a romantic notion of the real man who inspired the movie: an Italian-American cop whose Bohemian tastes didn’t dilute his righteousness regarding police department ethics. Judging from his new doc Frank Serpico, Antonino D’Ambrosio mostly shares that rosy view, emphasizing the courage and idealism required for the eponymous policeman to testify against shamelessly corrupt colleagues. Viewers who’d prefer a bit more psychological probing may be left unsatisfied, but most will appreciate this chance to hang out with the legendary whistle-blower.
Present-day Serpico looks about like you’d expect: beard now stylishly trimmed, small rings in both ears, scarves and beads suggestive of Eastern religion. He spent a long time away from our shores after his moment of fame: Believing he was set up by fellow cops as payback for having exposed their corruption, he suffered paranoia and PTSD after the on-duty shooting that nearly killed him. He self-exiled in Switzerland and Holland, then eventually found himself in the Hamptons, living a much more relaxed life.
D’Ambrosio has Serpico recall a formative encounter with casual abuse of power: Working in his family’s Brooklyn shoe repair shop, one day he shined the shoes of a beat cop who walked out without paying or even thanking him for his time. The next time the cop came by, young Frank’s father demanded payment in advance. “Never run when you’re right,” Dad told the boy.
Recruiting an impressive number of interviewees — fellow policemen, neighbors and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who represented Serpico as he testified about corruption — the film presents an account of Serpico’s life as a cop and his growing awareness of the graft around him. If Lumet’s film does a better job dramatizing this, that’s little surprise: D’Ambrosio acknowledges as much, using clips from the feature instead of reenacting key scenes.
Though much less thematically mushy than the director’s 2012 Let Fury Have the Hour, the film does understandably want to use its protagonist’s story to comment on present-day problems in policing. Author Luc Sante, a Serpico admirer, points out that there seemed to be a scandal every 20 years in the NYPD — suggesting not that wrongdoing vanished in the intervening years, but that it took a couple of decades for things to get so bad they could no longer be ignored. Serpico, who continues to make public appearances advocating further reform, clearly agrees.
Production company: Gigantic Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Antonino D’Ambrosio
Producers: Antonino D’Ambrosio, Brooke Devine, Brian Devine, Jason Orans
Executive producers: Brian Devine Sr., Silvija Devine
Directors of photography: Karim Lopez, Trevor Tweeten
Editor: Karim Lopez
Composer: Brendan Canty
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
Sales: The Film Sales Company
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