Ambrosoli … Fabrizio Bentivoglio
Silvio Novembre … Michele Placido
Michele Sindona … Omero Antonutti
Wife …Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu
Novembre’s wife … Laure Killing
Sarcinelli … Ricky Tognazzi
Trebbi … Laura Betti
Joseph Arico … Daan Hugaert
Adramatically cogent chronicle of the downfall of Sicilian banking mogul Michele Sindona’s financial empire, actor-director Michele Placido’s third feature, “Un Eroe Borghese,” shows an unfailing intelligence and exacting control that should find it a niche on the international arthouse circuit.
Resounding with more than a passing echo of the provocative tradition of political filmmakers like Francesco Rosi, pic hinges on the complex web of power linking commerce, politics and the criminal underworld in Italy. The collapse of Sindona’s empire brought about the assassination of Milanese lawyer Giorgio Ambrosoli in 1979.
Placido’s retelling begins with the state’s appointment of Ambrosoli (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) in 1974 to oversee official receivership of Sindona’s private bank following its collapse. Having fled Italy and taken refuge in New York, Sindona (Omero Antonutti) keeps tabs on the lawyer via his minions, initially seeing him as a malleable bureaucrat with little power to damage the larger reaches of Sindona’s financial operations. But Ambrosoli digs deeper than expected.
The lawyer quickly angers Sindona by assuming control of his offshore European holdings, causing him to retaliate by taking legal action. Ambrosoli begins to uncover an unscrupulous series of ties to Parliament, the Vatican and the Mafia.
Signals from the government suggest that Ambrosoli should curb his probe. These are followed by friendly warnings from his associates, and then by anonymous death threats. (Tapes of the original calls are used in the film.)
Sindona’s activities begin to suffer from the negative word spreading through the international business community. Further discredit comes from Ambrosoli’s testimony against him in a grand jury trial after the collapse of the Franklin Bank in the U.S. Having engaged a hit man, Sindona gives the order to eliminate Ambrosoli.
Scripters Graziano Diana and Angelo Pasquini make two judicious choices in distilling the landmark book by journalist Corrado Stajano into a comprehensible narrative. First, they pare down information on Sindona’s business activity to a minimum, largely avoiding banking and legal jargon. Sindona’s empire is established as a sinister but sketchily defined network of shady operations.
Second, the scripters amplify the personal ramifications for those involved without cranking them up to soap-opera level. The crescendo of fear that grips Ambrosoli’s family, for example, is rendered matter-of-factly, with considerable help from Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu’s perf as the lawyer’s wife.
Also well developed is the growing trust and friendship between Ambrosoli and Silvio Novembre (Placido). An officer from the Guardia di Finanza law enforcement branch, Novembre became the lawyer’s only ally and his self-appointed guardian when the government failed to provide protection. Their bond plays in shrewd contrast to the duel of wits between Ambrosoli and Sindona.
Scripters fail to build a more concrete bridge between the events and today’s ongoing corruption scandals in Italy. Though the film is quite frank about naming names — the most frequently cited is former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, currently in the spotlight for alleged Mafia collusion — the story functions largely as a fascinating page from history. The most incisive stroke is a speech by Sindona about freedom that sounds like a precursor of the kind of rhetoric with which Silvio Berlusconi swept to power.
Placido’s measured direction is matched by an equally focused cast. Bentivoglio brings to the role of Ambrosoli a determination that’s both compelling and tragic, almost as if he was resigned to the clock ticking away on his life but was too dedicated to be afraid.
Placido himself provides strong backing as his pragmatic friend, and Antonutti is a pure personification of cold, evil intelligence as Sindona. Laura Betti also has commanding moments as an administrative assistant from Sindona’s bank.
Technically, the film is first-rate. Luca Bigazzi’s lensing is full of rich, dark tones, effectively playing the tenebrous, shadowy recesses of the Milanese bank’s long, marble corridors against the bright open spaces of New York where Sindona does business. Pino Donaggio’s powerful score at times pushes the thriller element a little too hard, often recalling the emphatic tones of his work for Brian De Palma.