Veni, vidi, vici.
From roughly about the time of Tim Burton’s Batman, released in summer, 1989, big-budgeted cinematic comic book features have reveled in “darkness,” a word which their makers proudly trumpeted, hoping to equivocate shade with raw, artistic gravity.
Daredevil, Ang Lee’s Hulk, Spiderman 3, Suicide Squad and the recently released, feminist-slanted Wonder Woman have all promised gunmetal gray clouds of inner-turmoil in attempts to allure ticket buyers of an anti-happiness bent. Hell, even once squeaky-clean redheaded teen Archie Andrews and his pals have gone neo-noir, thanks to TV’s Riverdale, which reveals the murderously seamy underbelly of that mythical community, populated by the likes of Betty and Veronica, Jughead Jones, Dilton Doiley, etal.. But, I digress.
Amateurs, all. You want to really get down in there and play amongst the mire and muck of depraved society? Try Property Is No Longer A Theft, an Italian import from Oscar winning writer-director Elio Petri (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) and a shining example of the all-but-extinct black comedy genre.
“I, Mr. Total, the accountant, am no different from you and you are no different from me,” says the film’s presumed protagonist, by way of introduction.
Despite Total’s suggestion of kinship, you’ve got to wonder about those audience members disposed to identify with him. As played by Flavio Bucci (Suspiria), Total’s a bug-eyed, twitching mass of neuroses, suffering from a severe allergy to money (which he handles on a daily basis, as the result of his employment at a large bank in Rome) and subsequently, he spends a great deal of time itching, scratching and moisturizing himself with disinfectants.
On the other hand, Total’s honest as the day is long; never fudged a figure, never taken a bribe. At the end of each day, he goes home to share a meal in the humble apartment he shares with this father (Salvo Randone, Fellini’s Satyricon), now retired after years of toiling in that same bank himself.
Figuring there’s got to be more to life than this workaday, hand-to-mouth existence, Total applies for a bank loan and is turned down by his employer—the very one that grovelled at the Butcher’s feet earlier that day, begging him to accept the bank’s four hundred million lire loan.
Now, meet the Butcher (Ugo Tognazzi, La Cage aux Folles). Though he cuts meat for a living, the butcher (who prefers his title to a name) specializes in cutting deals for himself as his reason for living; adding his thumb to the scales, figuratively and literally. Though he’s handsome enough and exudes a certain slithery charm, it’s hard to believe that anyone he knows (including those who admire and envy him) actually likes him and equally hard to believe that he cares one whit about that.
He might or might not recognize Total in passing, but the accountant becomes fixated on this butcher, assigning all blame for society’s corruption and discrimination on him and vowing to get even. Soon, the butcher finds that he’s missing objects of negligible monetary value but rather, of great sentimental value: his carving knife, his hat, his mistress, Anita (Daria Nicolodi,Tenebrae).
Save those cards and letters, folks. It’s not me but she herself who brands the leggy young lady as an object (though her preferred nomenclature is “a sexual thing,” I believe).
It’s tempting to make a case for how timely this forty five year old film is, considering the world’s circumstances today, but then again, when isn’t the story of an honest man, so beaten down by a rigged system that he decides to exact revenge, not going to elicit certain audience sympathies?
Ah, but film maker Petri (a disillusioned ex-Communist that apparently never found solace in Capitalism, either) has little in common with modern-day American film audiences; conditioned to root for one side over another, circumstances be damned. As I said earlier, this is a comedy, and though it provides plenty of hearty laughs, one dare not call it feel-good comedy.
As the misadventures of Banker vs. Butcher continue apace, the film maker seems to delight in pointing out that the problem with the old if you can’t beat them, join them strategy is that—once you adopt it—you ultimately become one of them and then where is your moral leverage?
Arrow Academy brings Property Is No Longer A Theft to Blu-ray in fine style. Listen up, tech geeks: using the original film negatives, “The picture negative was scanned in 4K resolution and digitally restored in 2K.” Lay persons like myself can take comfort in the fact that the 1.85:1/1080p presentation proves thoroughly eye-pleasing and that the notable sense of darkness present more than likely reflects the film maker’s choice, well-serving the subject matter at hand.
Likewise, the Italian-language mono track comes through loud and clear, with Ennio Morricone’s superlative score adding just the right tones to this absurdist tale of anti-heroes, engaged in high-stakes competition. Optional English SDH subtitles are available.
Bonus features include a trio of new interviews with Flavio Bucci, producer Claudio Mancini, and make-up artist Pierantonio Mecacci, all long-time collaborators of Petri’s, who passed in 1982. The set also comes with a handsome booklet containing a worthy essay by film historian Camilla Zamboni and plenty of color photos. The entire program also comes in a DVD copy.
Contemporary audiences may initially struggle with the over-the-top presentation and the lack of an easily defined good guy/bad guy story arc, but nevertheless, I highly recommend Property Is No Longer A Theft to viewers looking for more than the same old jokes and tropes.