Hell Italian Style

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Deus ex machina, in the form of a lawyer with clout, at long last yanks a broken Alberto Sordi up and out of the hellish Italian prison system. Then we get the usual disclaimer: “Any resemblance, etc., etc…. ” But this grueling 90-minute total immersion in the system’s casual dehumanization rings entirely too true to be so easily dismissed.

Which is not, however, to dismiss Loy’s movie as mere agit-prop; far from it. Detained Pending Trial is a complex, fully fledged work of art.

I saw it in a jampacked 24-cent, triple-feature Mexican moviehouse. The audience began by laughing raucously and appreciatively at every new discomfiture suffered by the Sordi character. Well, why not? Here’s this comfortably upper-middle-class dude, after all, a professional, a land-surveyor: and he’s a bit of a, well, let’s face it, a … tool. We meet him in Sweden, on a terrace, all dressed up and handing drinks around to these middle-aged stuffed-shirt clients. He smiles, grins, bows—the works. A real toady. Sort of well-liked by the workers on his crew, mind you; but there’s a trace of contempt blended with their affection.

“Ah, you’re a real ‘caballero’,” one of the stuffed shirts comments upon departure, and as soon as their limousine pulls away, workers gleefully surround Sordi and echo that quaint word with more than an edge of mockery. OK. The Sordi character takes it in good spirits, warns the workers to fulfill the terms imposed by the contract-offering stuffed shirts, and drives off himself, accompanied by wife and children, toward a three-week vacation in his native Italy.

Audience feelings of superiority toward this figure are further encouraged—a bit too broadly, perhaps—when next we see Sordi, in closeup, fat-faced and simpleminded-looking, bellowing paeans to the beauties of Mother Italy as the car and trailer speed past some pretty scenery and approach “the most beautiful country in the world.”

At the border, an official collects passports, disappears, returns and asks Sordi to step outside with him for a few moments—a “mere formality.” Suddenly, as wife and children wait, pulled over to one side of the border crossing, we glimpse an astonished Sordi being hustled out of a back door by two cops. He’s handcuffed. They push him roughly into an official car and speed off into the heart of the nightmare.

Nobody knows, or will say, what the land surveyor is charged with. (Much later, somebody volunteers that he is supposed to have killed a German, a man whose name he has never heard.) He gets fingerprinted, interrogated, stripped, bullied. “Call me ‘Superior’ when you answer,” barks a prison guard. Sordi complies, and muses ruefully, as the door of his cell bangs shut, that the man is after all, in reality, at the moment, his superior. A wide-angle overhead shot then looks dispassionately down at the cowed prisoner hunched miserably over a bare toilet bowl in the corner of his cell, and the Mexicans roared with laughter.

Loudest carcajada (guffaw) of the evening was reserved, however, for the novice prisoner’s most deeply humiliating moment: a rectal search. Sordi’s anguished howl, “Do you think I’ve got a bomb up there?” brought the house down in a paroxysm of derision and sexual titillation.

A scant 15 or 20 minutes later, the audience seems transformed. A strong current of sympathy—identification, even—has sprung up. What is most impressive about Loy’s film (and Sordi’s characterization) is that it earns this sympathy without pandering.

As the protagonist endures progressively more severe hardships audience identification, inevitably, does build. That movement is Dantesque: down, down, down. It take a while, though, to discern another, subtler movement created by the tension between the Sordi character’s ingrained class dispositions and his dimly apprehended rising consciousness.

The old traits are stubborn. He gets thrown in with a new group of prisoners and almost his first words to them are, “But … I’m not like you, you know!” His temperament overresponds immediately to a piece of good advice. A fellow prisoner who tends himself to spit at judges and warders warns him that the alternative to a stoically maintained calm may be increased delay “pending trial,” a lengthened sentence, or worse. The frightened Sordi character gloms onto this advice and behaves thereafter toward his brutal or bureaucratic “superiors”—regardless of provocation—with an ingratiating subservience irresistibly reminiscent of his bowing and scraping on the Swedish terrace.

Closest we get to Sordi-as-comedian is a scene in which he dutifully eats, under the cold staring eye of a prison guard, a soup so nauseating the other prisoners have thrown it back in the guards’ faces. While that rueful clown’s countenance registers the patent awful truth about the soup, we hear Sordi earnestly assuring the guard that it’s just like the soup mother used to make.

But this scene—and the character’s kowtowing to authority throughout—is considerably more painful than it is funny. The audience, by this time, certainly isn’t laughing. At the Cine Venus, in fact, in Mexico City, cries of outrage are now erupting from all quarters.

One of the things that grinds Sordi down is that they keep transferring him from one prison to another. The process is not calculated to enhance a prisoner’s self-respect. Handcuffed, one leg chained to another prisoner’s leg, he’s pushed and prodded along down railroad station platforms and train aisles past the selfrighteous, disapproving gaze of “normal” Italian citizenry. One prolonged shot of these supercilious middle-Italian faces wrung from the increasingly militant Venus audience the heartfelt, classical Mexican imprecation: “Cochinos!” (“Swine!”). When another prisoner, despite handcuffs, managed to make an obscene gesture at a pampered-looking rubbernecking female passenger, a murmur of approval rose from the ranks.

A volley of scattered curses began going up whenever establishment figures were shown victimizing prisoners. Often as not these curses concluded in the lilting sol-mi that is the Mexican street-speech sound par excellence. At last, during one particularly degrading scene, this scattershot of audience indignation passed suddenly and unexpectedly beyond mere speech: the house filled with a chorus of whistles, rhythmic phrases expressing protest abstractly and ending in the distinctive sol-mi cadence.

Sordi’s own steps toward protest, .or toward any kind of solidarity, are characteristically timid and ambivalent. He makes only two human connections, really, during the entire time of his ordeal. In one case, on the train, he overhears a fellow prisoner expostulating noisily with a guard about the niggardliness of in-transit rations, even as measured by the minimum standards of the rulebook. When the guard gets around to him, Sordi accepts a cup of water but with an air of altruism—like a “caballero”—declines the food. “Here, give my mortadella to that fellow who made all the commotion,” he sneers. To the naked eye it looks like he’s sucking up to the guard again, but the fellow who gets the mortadella accepts it at face value, as a gesture of comradeship.

The two wind up in the same compartment, handcuffed together, in yet another dehumanizing prison transfer. His new friend offers Sordi a rumpled cigarette. No, I’ve got my own, says Sordi, and takes out a nice fresh pack. The other man puts his rumpled cigarette away. Sordi lights up his own, obliviously, starts putting the pack away. “Can I have one too?” asks the other man. Sordi is startled.

But the business of lighting up requires cooperation and close attention. Since they’re handcuffed, one man has to hold the matchbox while the other strikes a match against its side. That joint operation—photographed without special emphasis—is the closest the Sordi character has come thus far to relating unequivocally with the sort of person he instinctively fails to think of, despite their equal circumstances, as his semblable. Later, he casually tosses his own coat down to the other man so he can look “sharper” for a fateful court appearance.

Still, the leopard never entirely changes his spots. The only other person to whom Sordi is able to relate at all, in this environment, is … a screw, a prison guard. Sordi retreats to his own cell during an uprising, and the guard, injured and running from angry prisoners, comes busting in for sanctuary. To an incredulous group of particularly tough prisoners, Sordi later describes the guard as “a good guy.” What actually passes between the two during their few minutes trapped inside the cell is that the screw complains about his low salary and the abuse he takes from prisoners, and categorizes all Swedish women, despite Sordi’s mild demurral, as whores. Yet, he’s a “good guy”; i.e., he’s closer to Sordi’s own class and values than the other prisoners are.

In one remarkable scene, though, the Sordi character becomes a kind of radical, even a leader. The prisoners are at a mass for the dead man to whom he threw the coat. Sordi, moved, chants responses to the priest’s phrases, and a guard comes running up in a fury to demand silence. The prison rulebook again, a chickenshit bureaucratic bible. The responses continue, after a pause, just the same; and now all the prisoners take them up, pronouncing them defiantly into the faces of the guards. It’s a demonstration, of sorts—a bit corny to the eyes and ears of this non-believing gringo audience member, but manifestly exciting to the rest of the people in the Venus. Mexico is, after all, like Italy, a staunchly Catholic country. And this linkage of religious to revolutionary fervor would not seem strained to people of Zapata’s peasant armies, who carried the dark Virgin of Guadalupe’s standard next to the banner demanding Land and Liberty.

If I’ve dwelled on content in Loy’s film, it’s because the form is so beautifully self-effacing. On the first viewing the only film technique I was conscious of was a fairly frequent use of zooms; and what made me conscious of that was that the zooms seemed so appropriate, for a change. There is absolutely no ostentation in their use; nor in the use of special angles; nor in the occasional “beautiful” composition—such as the breathtaking Piranesi-like longshot during the rebellion, of tiered cell blocks, swarming prisoners, tear-gas smoke, and searchlights playing on the high far windows, held very briefly and not repeated.

Also, I’ve focused on Sordi, because it’s his picture, and a major achievement; but the film is filled with finely etched portraits of the people he meets in transit to the lowest circle of prison life. And the music, poignant throughout, rises to a rare emotional pitch in one short night scene showing only the exterior of a craggy prison perched high above an Italian resort, the air echoing with shouted messages and gutty snatches of folksong.

Detained Awaiting Trial is a first-class achievement all the way around, and makes me eager indeed to see more of Nanni Ley’s work.

OETENUTO IN ATTESA 01 GIUOIZlO
(British title: WHY-?)
Direction: Nanni Loy. Screenplay: Sergio Amidei, Amilio Sanna. Cinematography: Sergio d’Offizi. Editing: Franco Fraticelli. Music: Carlo Rustichelli.”
The players: Alberto Sordi, Elga Andersen, Lino Banfi, Giuseppe Anatrelli, Tano Cimarosa, Antonio Casagrande, Nino Formicola.

Copyright © 1975 Ken Eisler