Elio Petri: Todo Modo

Gian Maria Volonte and incriminating paper trail in Todo Modo
Gian Maria Volonte and incriminating paper trail in Todo Modo

Produced by Daniele Senatore for  Cine Vera
Director: Elio Petri
Story: Based on the novel ‘Todo Modo’ by Leonardo Sciascia
Screenplay: Elio Petri, Berto Pelosso
Cinematography: Luigi Kuveiller
Music: Ennio Morricone
Editor: Ruggero Mastroianni
Art director: Dante Ferretti
Release dates & running times: Italy (30/04/76), France (19/01/77, 133 mins), Germany (139 mins)
Italian takings:
Cast: Gian Maria Volonté (‘M’), Marcello Mastroianni (don Gaetano), Mariangela Melato (Giacinta, ‘M’s wife), Ciccio Ingrassia (Voltrano), Franco Citti (a chauffeur), Cesare Gelli (Arras, deputy judge), Tino Scotti (the chef), Adriano Amidei Migliano (Capra-Porfiri), Giancarlo Badessi (Ventre), Mario Bartoli (Lombo), Nino Costa (a young priest), Guerrino Crivello (speaker on close circuit TV), Marcello Di Falco (Saccà), Giulio Donnini (Bastante), Aldo Farina (Restrero), Giuseppe Leone (Martellini), Renato Malavisa (Michelozzi), Rccardo Mangano (Cardinal Beccaris), Piero Mazzinghi (Caprarozza), Lino Murolo (Mozio), Piero Nuti (Schiavò), Loris Perera Lopez (Lombo Sr.), Riccardo Satta (Lomazzo), Luigi Uzzo (Aldo Lombo), Luigi Zerbinati (Caudo), Renato Salvatori (Dr. Scalambri), Michel Piccoli (‘him’)

Todo modo
Todo modo

Petri’s tendency towards obfuscation stepped up yet another gear with Todo modo (76), which is  one of the strangest films ever made. Set in the near future, it delineates an Italian society that is run by a coalition between powerful industries, the ‘party’ and – above all – the Catholic Church.  Of course, what this has ended up meaning is that a small group of industrialists, politicians and priests have become dominant, whilst the masses struggle on with the business of survival (as always).  In the background hovers the threat of a ‘virus’, the effects of which are never clearly explained (could it be revolution?), and which seems to be spreading through the country.

A selection of the aforementioned elite gathers at an isolated and highly secure, modernist monastery.  They are there ostensibly to practice the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuits), under the guidance of the charismatic Bishop Gaetano (Marcello Mastroianni).  The purpose of this is unclear, but it’s suggested that most of the attendees are really there for the networking opportunities.  Among their number is ‘M’ (Gian Maria Volonté), the ‘Chairman’, a career politician who just happens to be impotent (poor old Volonté seems to play sexually dysfunctional characters in all of his Petri films).

Things get really bizarre when assorted guests start turning up dead.  The police investigate without success, but ‘M’ comes up with an astounding theory: the delegates are being killed, he suggests, in ways that mirror the religious exercises they’re supposedly performing.  In the meantime, the virus is getting closer to the monastery, and the identity of the killer is still unknown.

As the seventies had progressed, Petri’s films became more baffling, and this definitely sees him at his most enigmatic.  It’s the type of thing that leaves you certain that you’ve only understood a fraction of the narrative (let alone the subtexts).  However, you’re also left with the suspicion that this obliqueness doesn’t actually mask hidden depths, but more the cinematic doodlings of someone with an absurdist eye and a wicked sense of humor.  Whatever, despite its drawbacks – most notably a lack of cohesion, self-indulgence and being typically overlong – this is, in many ways, Petri’s most memorable work.

As with The 10th Victim, Todo modo uses the science fiction genre as a means of exploring social and political themes.  There are also echoes of Pasolini’s Salo (75) (group of old pervs ship up in a castle and indulge in their excesses) and, more particularly, Poe’s Mask of the Red Death (group of aristocrats ship up in a castle in order to (unsuccessfully) hide from the plague).

The main targets of the piece are the Italian Christian Democratic Party and the Catholic Church.  Petri loathed the Democrats, whom he denounced as capitalists who had ‘Americanised’ the country, and had intended to make a satire about them since the mid-sixties.  The assorted ‘party’ representatives portrayed here are a pretty reprehensible bunch, and the film’s treatment of them is relentlessly (but enjoyably) harsh.  The Church also comes off rather badly, being shown to side with the wealthy and to be more concerned with its own economic survival than any kind of religious idealism.  Apart, that is, from the surface gloss of fire-and-brimstone sermonising and insane devotional practices as encouraged by Gaetano.

Leaving the ‘meanings’ aside, Todo modo succeeds because it is simply a very well made film.  Once again, a large part of this is to do with the sets and art direction.  The monastery is a bizarre construction, mixing long hotel-like corridors with catacombs, hidden altars and ever-present CCTV cameras.  Scattered among all of these are impressionist sculptures of biblical characters (again bringing to mind The 10th Victim), which only adds to the disorientation caused by the already bewildering plot.  The surrealist touches are very striking: the guests striding up and down a hall in a pointless form of masochistic meditation, the weird deaths (why do the victims seem to lose their trousers?  What are those chattering false teeth??).

Best of all, though, is the superb climax.  No, it doesn’t make any sense at all, but it involves a memorable tableau of distorted corpses, paper trails of incriminating documents and inexplicable figures dancing through the woods.  It all ends bleakly, of course, and without a proper sense of closure – but by now if you haven’t learned to expect that from Petri you probably deserve to be flummoxed.

Gian Maria Volonte in Todo Modo
Gian Maria Volonte in Todo Modo

Added to this are another range of great performances.  Volonté is simply magnificent; by turns obsequious, craven and desperate (just like your normal politician, really).  His performance and character were modeled on Aldo Moro, the then head of the Italian Christian Democratic Party, someone who Petri considered to be a dangerous ‘sweet talker’ who had used his diplomatic skills (as well as the aura of carrying an almost unbearable burden) to undermine his left wing opposition. Moro, by the by, was kidnapped and executed by the Red Brigades in 1978.  In supporting roles, Mastroianni is charismatic, Michel Piccoli unrecognizable and Franco Citti sinister.  Surprisingly, the performer who really grabs the attention is Ciccio Ingrassia, better known for a serious of hugely populr (in Italy, anyway) slapstick films with his comedic partner, Franco Franchi.  Here he’s extremely malevolent as a pedophile priest who ends up stuffed into a bin-liner with a whole load of women’s panties!  It does have to be said, though, that whatever horrors may be documented on the screen during the unfolding of Todo modo, nothing is quite as alarming as the sight of Ciccio whipping his own barenaked, skinny ass.  Brrrr.

Considering its contentious nature, its hardly surprising that Todo Modo experienced a rather troubled transition from script to the screen.  Initial producer Alberto Grimaldi quit after proving unable to attract potential French or Italian distributors.  His successor, Daniele Senatore, managed to reach an unlikely agreement with Warner Brothers (mainly thanks to the high quality cast), but there were still difficulties with Cinecittà (which was reluctant to make a studio available for the shoot) and a shadowy group called Unione Uomo-Natura, who attempted to prosecute the film for defaming the Italian chief of State.  Things weren’t helped by the fact that it was eventually released just prior to elections which were largely based around Moro’s attempts to reach consensus with the Communist Party, thus giving weight to accusations of its being a piece of pure polemic.  As a result, the critical establishment used every opportunity to vent its spleen, and rumors even circulated that Petri, Mastroianni and Volonté had been blacklisted as a result of their participation.

About Matt Blake 890 Articles
The WildEye is a blog dedicated to the wild world of Italian cinema (and, ok, sometimes I digress into discussing films from other countries as well). Peplums, comedies, dramas, spaghetti westerns... they're all covered here.

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