In his later years Elio Petri’s sardonic sense of humour appears to have allowed him to savour the irony of having been perhaps the only front-rank Italian director to have been refused entry to the prestigious Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the Italian National Film School in Rome, when he had applied to study there in 1948 (1). Undeterred by the rejection, and while continuing to work as a journalist and film critic for the Communist daily L’Unità, he had subsequently made his way into the industry by co-scripting several films for already established neo-realist director Giuseppe De Santis, before managing to snare Marcello Mastroianni, still fresh from his stellar success in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960), to star in his first directed feature, L’assassino (The Assassin, 1961). He was able to entice Mastroianni to act for him again, this time opposite Ursula Andress, in the willfully kitschy but highly-engaging sci-fi fantasy, La decima vittima (The Tenth Victim, 1965).
It was, however, with the proto-mafia film, A ciascuno il suo (We Still Kill the Old Way, 1967), that Petri had really begun to make his mark. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and initiated what would become a very fruitful collaboration between Petri and novelist-screenwriter Ugo Pirro and actor Gian Maria Volonté, both of whom would greatly contribute to what for many remains the best of the dozen films that Petri would make in his unfortunately short career, Indagine d’un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, 1970). Nominated for the Palme d’Or, the film won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize as well as the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, thus catapulting Petri into the ranks of internationally-recognised Italian directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Fellini. At the same time, as a study of power as a form of pathology, Investigation became the first of what would come to be known as Petri’s “trilogy of social neurosis”. The other entries were La classe operaia va in paradiso (The Working Class Goes to Heaven, 1971), which treated work as something of a sickness, and La proprietà non é più un furto (Property is No Longer a Theft, 1973), which similarly addressed the desire for property and wealth as a form of social malaise.
At the time of its release Property is No Longer a Theft failed to attract anything like the critical acclaim that had been showered on both Investigation and The Working Class Goes to Heaven. Seen today, however, its audacity and achievement in providing a caustic and grotesque portrait of the affluent society that had sprouted like a cursed seed in the rubble of postwar Italy seem even greater than in its two predecessors, with Property is No Longer a Theft effectively carrying out a sort of culmination of the earlier films. That disturbing sharp edge of hysteria channeled by Volonté in both Investigation and The Working Class Goes to Heaven is here built into the very fabric of the film and circulates throughout its nooks and crannies like a contagious miasma. Similarly, the strong sense of theatricality and performativity in the two earlier films, which also comes most to the fore in Volonté’s intensely self-conscious performances, is here adopted as a something of a structural principle and developed to its limit in the continual direct address to the audience, à la Brecht or Godard, by all the major characters, all lucidly and self-consciously externalising themselves as pathological forms of social being: Total (Flavio Bucci), the previous law-abiding bank clerk but now would-be thief, who opens the film looking us in the eye and telling us that in his dissatisfaction and lack of property he is just like us (and we, of course, are just like him); the unnamed rich capitalist butcher (brilliantly played by Ugo Tognazzi), patently ready to go to any length in order to accumulate more wealth, also looking us in the face and telling us that he would be all too willing to give up all his property but only if everyone else did so first; his mistress and chattel, Anita (Daria Nicolodi), who in a direct address to the camera that is both remarkably erotic and morally chilling, tells us almost gleefully how she knows she is a thing, or many things, or many pieces of one thing, a vase full of holes, a container available to all and able to be opened up by anyone – in this, again, she is just like us, the audience sitting there in the cinema. And, in an almost direct reprise of the maniacal police commissioner (Orazio Orlando) character in the earlier Investigation, the police commissioner here looks directly at us in order to confess the tragic paradox of his existence: after a lifetime spent striving to achieve the impossible goal of fostering a just order in a society where everyone is unequal, he is consumed by a profound pessimism that he can only remedy by taking pleasure in his ability to arrest whomever he pleases.
On the surface these frequent breaks in the narrative create the impression of a certain incoherence and fragmentation and yet the film is perhaps more tightly structured, more layered and thematically coherent than either of the two previous films in the trilogy. Its political points of reference are amply signalled in the title with its clear allusions to both Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s proto-anarchist treatise, What is Property? (1840), to which Proudhon answered “theft”, and Karl Marx’s characterisation of property, in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) and elsewhere, as a form of alienation. Both of these are put into dialectical play in Total’s practice of a “Mandrake-Marxism” as he willingly embraces the role of ruthless nemesis of the property-hoarding butcher. Although it will be the butcher who will ultimately win the cat-and-mouse game that ensues, the film is perfectly coherent in closing – or almost – with a remarkable paean to thieves and to the art of robbery delivered by veteran actor Gigi Proietti, brought in specifically for the task. So, paradoxically, and only slightly tongue–in-cheek, it turns out that property is no longer a theft because theft is the fundamental form of modern economic and social existence.
But perhaps even more striking than the film’s ideological coherence is its expressionistic visual design, clearly founded on the later style of internationally-renowned Italian painter and illustrator Renzo Vespignani. Indeed, in what must be one of the most disquieting credit sequences in the history of cinema, the film’s titles appear over an interlocking series of mostly anguished and angst-ridden portraits of the film’s characters – effectively studies in alienation and misery – painted by Vespignani himself. If the source of the anguish expressed in these tortured faces would appear to be the money which is shown a number of times in-between the portraits, the misery itself is conveyed on the soundtrack by a series of ambivalent gasps and moans, disconcerting human sounds that we struggle to decipher but which with some luck we eventually recognise as the words tu (you), hai (have), io (I), noi (we), essi (they), and hanno (have). It’s only at the end, perhaps, that we’ll realise the entire film has been the playing out of the distorting desire and alienation already apparent in Vespignani’s initial set of paintings. And perhaps one of the most remarkable leads into the film furnished to us in this initial sequence is that of a painted face, half male and half female, which appears a number of times. This double face returns and will be given a body of sorts in the remarkable cabaret act performed by Albertone (Mario Scaccia), a character who, as both a renowned stage actor and a master thief well-known to the police, incarnates an endless duplicity.
Indeed, as well as refracting doubleness to infinity, Albertone’s extraordinary burlesque act also supplies a particular delight, perhaps largely inaccessible to non-Italian speakers, which is the masterful recitation of one of the most scurrilous sonnets written in the Romanesco dialect by the popular 19th century poet Giacchino Giuseppe Belli, which is composed of nothing other than slang variations on the word for the male member. Furthermore, in a similar proleptic gesture, the words/sounds spoken over the credit sequence then blossom during the film into the absurd and obsessive attempts by Total’s father to conjugate the verbs essere (to be) and avere (to have) in relation to each other, soon confusing the two to the point of declaring “essere, voce del verbo avendo” (“to be, a form of the verb having”). Significantly, three years after the release of Petri’s film, the social psychologist Erich Fromm published a book entitled To Have or To Be? which identified this con-fusion as being at the very root of modern society’s profound existential malaise (2). But Petri’s film had already identified the sickness. “I would like to be and to have”, says Total in one of his direct addresses to camera, “which is impossible. This is the disease.”
In an Italy still chasing affluence, Property is No Longer a Theft was critically dismissed and soon forgotten. One of the few critics to appreciate its true value was P. Bianchi who in the Milan daily Il Giorno wrote: “It’s the most ambitious film yet of the sharp and capable Elio Petri. Received rather poorly at the recent Venice festival, it deserves quite different consideration since it appears as one of the most challenging works to be recently seen in our country.” (3)
- Typically, Petri conserved the letter of rejection and apparently liked to show it around. The letter is reproduced in Lucidità inquieta: Il cinema di Elio Petri, ed. Paola Pegorari Petri, Museo nazionale del cinema, Turin, 2007, p. 14.
- Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be? Harper and Row, New York, 1976.
- Bianchi quoted in Roberto Poppi and Mario Pecorari, Dizionario del cinema italiano, vol. 4, part 2, M-Z, Gremese, Rome, 1996, p. 187. Author’s translation.
La proprietà non è più un furto/Property is No Longer a Theft (1973 Italy/France 120 mins)
Prod Co: Labrador Films/Quasars Film Company/Société Nouvelle Cinéog/Studio du Dragon Prod: Claudio Mancini Dir: Elio Petri Scr: Elio Petri, Ugo Pirro Phot: Luigi Kuveiller Ed: Ruggero Mastroianni Mus: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Ugo Tognazzi, Flavio Bucci, Daria Nicoldi, Salvo Randone, Mario Scaccia, Julien Guiomar, Orazio Orlando