Story of a Massacre: Film Review

Marco Tullio Giordana’s serious-minded but opaque historical thriller offers a fascinating re-creation of Italy’s Piazza Fontana massacre but will be mighty hard to follow offshore.

One of the hardest things to explain about Italy is its Byzantine politics and the way it impacts daily life. Even more difficult to convey are its many undercover intrigues involving governments, secret services, the military and even foreign powers. How, then, can the tangled truths of the unsolved 1969 Piazza Fontana massacre, in which 17 people were killed a terrorist explosion, be unraveled in a two-hour film? The most successful artistic venture in this direction is perhaps Dario Fo’s farcical play Accidental Death of an Anarchist, but -- probably due to the complexity of the events -- a screen version never has been attempted.

In Story of a Massacre, an impressive co-production from Cattleya, Babe Films and Rai Cinema, director Marco Tullio Giordana (The Best of Youth) bravely takes up the challenge. While the film superbly re-creates the atmosphere of tension that characterized the period, it is packed with too many characters and too much ambiguity to work as a conventional thriller. As the first film to examine Piazza Fontana, a turning point in Italian postwar history whose repercussions are still being felt today, it is bound to spark great interest as well as controversy domestically. Offshore, its fascination will be considerably diluted by the difficulty of following the story and characters, making it a hard export outside of festivals and history buffs.

On Dec. 12, 1969, at least four bombs exploded: three in Rome and the most devastating one (or perhaps two) in a bank in Milan, killing 17 and leaving 100 people injured. To this day, no one has been convicted of these attacks, and that already is one strike against Giordana’s screenplay, penned with two masters of social and political films, Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli. Although at first the anarchists were blamed, later courts pointed the finger at extreme right-wing fascist groups, though many concur that parts of the government and military probably were involved, and almost certainly Italy’s secret services. According to investigative journalist Paolo Cuccharielli, on whose book the film is based, the CIA and American embassy might have had a hand, too.

Machiavelli move over, this is one convoluted tale that even Italians will have trouble keeping straight. Fortunately, it remains dramatically afloat thanks to the remarkably sharp performances of a huge cast, each actor nailing a particular historical figure in a few swift strokes: the rabid fascist Pietro Valpreda, Italian President Giuseppe Saragat, famous journalist Camilla Cederna and so on.    

Interestingly, the film’s guiding thread is much-maligned Police Commissioner Luigi Calabresi, crucified by the media for the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, an anarchist who fell from the fourth-floor window of his office during an interrogation about Piazza Fontana. Valerio Mastrandrea, an actor whose humorous face and offhand manner most often have found their way into comedies, steps into Calabresi’s boots with authority; his quiet intelligence easily wins sympathy, even while his looks recall the murderous police commissioner played by Gian Maria Volonte in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. The film closes, chillingly, with one of the few certainties in this affair: Calabresi’s cold-blooded murder by the extreme left group Lotta Continua.

Pinelli, played warmly by versatile actor Pierfrancesco Favino, is another saving grace in a sea of characters. Paralleling Calabresi, he is a family man attached to his wife and kids, and his innocence is never in doubt. Pulled in for questioning by the police and held illegally, he is bullied for three days until, with Calabresi out of the room, he falls (or is thrown) from the balcony to his death in circumstances finally ruled “accidental” by the courts.

Throughout the film, Giordana is at pains to describe a world of danger and intrigue fostered by political factions of every stripe. Greece is living under a military dictatorship, and many believe Italy soon could fall under a similar coup d’etat from the right. At least three groups of fascist extremists flit through the film, and mental gymnastics are required to keep them all straight. At the same time, anarchists and violent left-wing groups like the Red Brigades, who will eventually assassinate Aldo Moro, are on the rise. The government, in particular, fears the country is in danger of a communist invasion, and NATO is stockpiling weapons near the Yugoslav border for defense.

While Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo had fun caricaturing politicians of the day, Giordana prefers to allow their natural grotesqueness to emerge from realistic acting and in some cases extraordinary physical resemblance. This is true for Christian Democrat leader Moro, mimicked to a T by Fabrizio Gifuni, who brings out his devout Catholicism, sharp political mind and ultimate helplessness to alter events around him. Another figure non-Italians might recognize is Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (Fabrizio Parenti), the book publisher and revolutionary whose body was found torn to pieces by a bomb placed under a high-voltage pylon outside Milan.

The fact that Pinelli, Calabresi and Feltrinelli all die offscreen is indicative of the way the film ignores standard dramatic/thriller opportunity in favor of general atmosphere. A great deal of the film’s eerie fascination can be credited to Giordana’s regular cinematographer Roberto Forza, who creates a stunning period look through his use of half-light and long shadows. Black-and-white archive footage is masterfully intercut in the moving funeral commemoration of the massacre outside the Milan Duomo, which involved an immense crowd. Giancarlo Basili’s austere sets make sure the film is never visually banal.

Venue: Quattro Fontane cinema, Rome
Production companies: Cattleya, Babe Films in association with Rai Cinema
Cast: Valerio Mastrandrea, Pierfrancesco Favino, Michela Cescon, Laura Chiatti, Fabrizio Gifuni, Luigi Lo Cascio, Giorgio Colangeli, Omero Antonutti
Director: Marco Tullio Giordana
Screenwriters: Marco Tullio Giordana, Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli based on a book by Paolo Cucchiarelli
Producers: Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz
Delegate producer: Gina Gardini
Co-producer: Fabio Conversi
Executive producer: Matteo De Laurentiis
Director of photography: Roberto Forza
Production designer: Giancarlo Basili
Music: Franco Piersanti
Costumes:  Francesca Livia Sartori
Editor: Francesca Calvelli
No rating, 128 minutes.

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