Review: The Mattei Affair

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

The Mattei Affair affords one of the year’s most peculiar film experiences. I think most people who see it will agree with that, whether or not their personal reactions to the picture closely resemble my own (possibly very subjective) response. For about half the film’s running time I was conscious of enduring the movie more than experiencing it. It offers few of the conventional compensations. For one thing, its subject is highly political—and not only political but also, as it appears for a while, narrowly regional. Who is—was—Enrico Mattei? An official in an Italian state industry who concerned himself with realizing the oil and especially the methane resources of various impoverished sectors of the country, and who died in the mysterious crash of his private jet in 1962. The movie opens, Citizen Kane–like, with Mattei’s death, presented fragmentarily through the points of view of a farmer who’s awakened by the crash, the airline personnel routinely monitoring the flight, and various media contingents who leap into action to cover the event. Immediately the case is fragmented even further: there is a flashback from the discovery and aftermath of the crash to the crash actually occurring; and then time and place and point-of-view become still more problematical. A bank of TV screens gives back diverse images of Mattei at various stages of his career, images of newsmen commenting on Mattei, images of other people being interviewed about Mattei—and some of the screens are just full of static; more or loss constantly, at least one of them glows with the words ENRICO MATTEI, as though The Truth were lurking, “Rosebud”-like, Executive Action–like, amid this welter of available media documentation.

Was Mattei a scoundrel or an international hero of the politically and economicallv disadvantaged? Did his plane crash as result of a freak accident—not improbable, given his frenetic schedule of lightning journeys here, there, and everywhere: the law of averages calls for something to go wrong sooner or later—or was the flight sabotaged at the bidding of the American petroleum industry he fought to keep from ripping off the natural wealth of other nations? The movie takes a long time to develop these questions. Some of the time we are looking at more or less dramatic scenes of Mattei, in the person of Gian Maria Volonté, in action. Then there are dramatized scenes of people reacting to, and going into various kinds of action after, his death. Then there are camera-to-speaker interviews of real-life persons commenting on the case. There are scenes of a stocky fellow in a darkened screening room who looks like … it is … Francesco Rosi himself, and he examines the photographic and electronic pieces of Mattei’s life, and he walks and talks with people who might be sources of information in the Mattei affair, and he speaks of a film he is trying to make. No discernible pattern emerges in the ordering of these fragments and levels. The mise-en-scène … there is no mise-en-scène, not in any classical sense. And yet The Mattei Affair takes hold, and one suddenly realizes (I suddenly realized) that for about half an hour he’s become fascinated by the whole modern-age mystery.

Part of the effect is due, surely, to topical immediacy: when Mattei speaks of Arab nations sitting upon a sea of 80 percent of the world’s petroleum, petroleum vital to the very lifestyle of economic imperialists like the United States, the suburbanite awaiting gas rationing in January necessarily snaps to attention. But beyond that, Rosi has come close to achieving a new kind of motion picture, a new film form that seeks to accommodate the political realities and the existential terrors of an age when information is abundantly available and truth, the very nature of truth, becomes increasingly elusive. It’s Costa-Gavras without the straight-line melodrama, Haskell Wexler without the seductive Technicolor sumptuousness, Godard without the hectoring. Indeed, it’s a kind of film anticipated by Rosi’s own Salvatore Giuliano (regrettably, seen here only in a mutilated version entitled Bandit’s Revenge), another, even more regional film that begins with the death of a sociopolitical icon and circuitously explores the meanderings of history and accident that produced him, and his notoriety, and his death. (I confess that, at least in mutilated form, Salvatore Giuliano left me bewildered most of the time—who was that? just which faction is this now?—at the same lime it cast an indefinable spell.) Gian Maria Volonté was the only player I could put a name to, and that’s one of the film’s essential strengths: there must be something like star identity to rivet one’s interest and recognition to Mattei since the character is forcibly denied the sort of linear development that might enable an unknown to flesh him out; and Volonté invests those glimpses of Mattei with a smoldering, occasionally volcanic intensity that will come as no surprise to those who have seen him in, well, anything—his range would seem to be unlimited, but his power is a constant.

The Mattei Affair is no crowd-pleaser; for a good while it didn’t even promise to be a snob-pleaser—not this snob, anyway. I’m quite sure it will be gone from the Broadway Theatre before this review appears. But when Rosi ends his film on a shot we’ve seen before—a canvas shroud sagging with the twenty pounds of dead meat to which an insupportably dynamic man has been reduced—and that man’s earlier words echo on the soundtrack—”I may not make it, but the people who have oil under their feet will”—there is a resounding sense of tragic fulfillment that is positively … classical.

RTJ

THE MATTEI AFFAIR
Direction: Francesco Rosi. Story and Screenplay: Rosi, Tonino Guerra. Cinematography: Pasqualino de Santis. Editing: Ruggero Mastroianni. Music: Piero Piccioni.
The Players: Gian Maria Volonté, Francesco Rosi.

Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson