Every country has recent traumas that resist accountability. For the U.S., it’s Vietnam and Watergate; in Italy it’s the “Years of Lead” of the late 1960s and ’70s, when left and right extremists perpetrated high-profile attacks. In “Romanzo di una strage,” Marco Tullio Giordana (“The Best of Youth”) dissects one such event, the Piazza Fontana bombing, to highlight the cynical manipulations and tragic consequences of the deed and subsequent investigations. The result is a studious re-creation, incorporating scenes of real power, yet the multitude of characters and cloak-and-dagger machinations are bound to confuse offshore auds.
Similar criticism dogged last year’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” though that film’s fictional treatment of the Cold War deliberately played on the disorientation of any double-agent story. Giordana and his regular co-scripters aren’t aiming for the same kind of obfuscation, but rather rely on a thorough knowledge of the players and the cold-blooded realpolitik of the time to get across their analysis of the intrigue. The results are engrossing for the well-informed, and important for Italy, but given the local market’s unfriendly attitude toward home-grown dramas, the pic may struggle to find a wide-ranging audience even on the peninsula.
The straightforward nature of the title, which translates to “The Story of a Massacre,” reveals Giordana’s approach, eliminating any hint of melodrama in a bid to be as clear-cut as possible. It’s a difficult task when this complex world involves anarchists, communists, fascists and even the CIA, all rife with Machiavellian alliances. Providing the guiding thread is chief investigator Luigi Calabresi (Valerio Mastandrea), a Milanese cop keeping tabs on left-wing groups suspected of stirring unrest.
Autumn of 1969 was a tense time in Italy, when many feared the communists would take power, and others believed segments of the military were preparing a preventive coup, as with Greece in 1967. After a bomb goes off in a bank in Milan’s Piazza Fontana, killing 17 people, Calabresi interviews an anarchist suspect, Giuseppe Pinelli (Pierfrancesco Favino). The investigator doesn’t believe the non-violent family man is involved, but posters found nearby and the testimony of a cabbie incriminating Pinelli’s fellow anarchist Pietro Valpreda (Stefano Scandaletti) convince many, including Calabresi’s superiors.
During Pinelli’s interrogation, Calabresi steps out of the room; a moment later, Pinelli’s dead on the pavement outside. The other cops claim he jumped out the window, but Calabresi’s skeptical. Digging deeper, he discovers neofascist plots, assisted by the CIA, aimed at creating an atmosphere of terror that would discredit the left and enable a military coup. Yet those in power either refuse to see or are themselves implicated, and Calabresi is chillingly left to cope alone.
Woven throughout are major figures such as future prime minister (and kidnap-murder victim) Aldo Moro (played to eerie perfection by Fabrizio Gifuni) and President Giuseppe Saragat (Omero Antonutti). Moro in particular is treated as the embodiment of the rare just man of state, and Giordana uses him as much for his role in this investigation as for the sympathetic and tragic emotions he raises in most Italians. For those unaware of Moro’s history, however, his recurring presence may puzzle.
The helmer’s success at engaging with his nation’s past makes him a natural here, and, in contrast with his 2008 misfire “Wild Blood,” he approaches things with tamped-down passion. There are deeply moving scenes, such as when Pinelli’s widow, Licia (Michela Cescon), tells the court she’s not afraid of the truth, but Giordana avoids any grandstanding, as if the serious nature of the subject and its continued impact on Italian life demands an even-tempered recitation; no one has ever been convicted of the bombing or of Pinelli’s death. Even the way the bombing is shot, coolly and with apparently no CGI work, seems to say the explosive nature of the implications are greater than any pyrotechnic display.
Perfs are largely first-class, with Mastandrea’s air of eternal preoccupation especially well used. Great attention is paid to how the actors are lit, using shadow and stark brightness to reinforce the murkiness and uncertainty of alliances; no one is able to shine a light on the truth. A minimal use of music fits with the pic’s sense of levelheadedness resisting manipulation.