Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Taste of Sicily: Italian Television's Inspector Montalbano

Luca Zingaretti as Salvo Montalbano in Inspector Montalbano

For any fan of crime fiction, finding a new detective series is an exciting experience. I recently discovered Salvo Montalbano, a police detective in the fictional island town of Vigàta, Sicily. Inspector Montalbano is the creation of Italian novelist Andrea Camilleri, whose first Montalbano novel was published in Italian in 1994. While Camilleri has enjoyed success with other books, his twenty-one Montalbano novels (the most recent was published in 2013) have earned him and his irascible protagonist a special place in the hearts of Italian readers, making Salvo Montalbano easily Italy's most famous fictional crime-fighter. (So famous in fact that Camilleri's hometown of Porto Empedocle, which was the basis for the fictional setting of the novels, officially changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigàta in 2003!) Since 2002 the novels have been steadily making their way into English – translator Stephen Sartarelli's version of the 17th novel Angelica's Smile will be available later this June – but for the telephiles out there, there is also an alternative way to enjoy Montalbano’s grumpy charm.  In 1999, Italy's RAI television network began airing Il commissario Montalbano, feature-length television adaptations of Camilleri's Montalbano stories. The series, which is still in production, now boasts 9 seasons and 26 individual episodes – some with original teleplays but most using scripts adapted directly from the novels and short stories. An English-subtitled version appeared in 2012 for British audience on BBC as Inspector Montalbano, and the same episodes aired on the MHz WorldView network in the U.S., under the title Detective Montalbano. The show deserves a wider North American viewership, and fortunately, all 26 existing episodes are available on DVD. If you are a fan of crime dramas, and detective fiction in particular, you should seek them out.

Only a few years ago, in a piece I wrote about an Israeli comedy series called Arab Labor, I bemoaned our North American tendency to re-make notable foreign television rather than subtitle and broadcast the originals. But, in just a few short years, it seems that foreign-language television has begun to be appreciated on its own terms – witness the critical and popular success of Danish shows like Borgen, the original The Killing, and The Bridge, or even the Netflix original Lilyhammer. No doubt American television isn't done mining the world for new stories and situations (see, the forthcoming American adaptation of the UK's sublime Broadchurch for just one unthinkably and utterly unnecessary example), but there is room to hope that North American viewers will be enjoying more and more foreign-language television, and we are all the better for it. 

Luca Zingaretti and Peppino Mazzotta
All stories worth telling and all stories worth hearing bring us more than merely new characters and situations; they carry with them new ways of thinking, of living of breathing. There is simply no replacement for dipping your toes into another land's popular entertainment. Television is popular in the most essential meaning of the word, and a result it is a crucial touchstone for the self-understanding of a culture. With its long-form narrative model and the intimacy that develops with a show after spending not merely 120 minutes but dozens of hours with it, sometimes over years, television is ideally suited for this adventure. And English-speaking TV audiences are in a privileged position when it comes to TV; the decades of television we take for granted – especially in its most popular genres, namely crime dramas and comedies – have shaped and influenced TV worldwide. (For example, with its Curb Your Enthusiasm take on Arab-Israeli life, Arab Labor speaks back to the centre in a way we might not be able to anticipate, but just as surely have been prepared to hear.) The best stories, in whatever accent or dialect they are told, engender irreplaceable moments where the unfamiliar suddenly becomes recognizable, and (all the more powerful) when the familiar becomes, in a flash, unfamiliar. RAI's Inspector Montalbano, with its self-conscious appropriation of the tropes established by the likes of Columbo and Inspector Morse, is not only eminently entertaining (and intermittently laugh out loud funny), it is just unfamiliar enough to even the most seasoned North American viewer that the old will feel quite new.

Luca Zingaretti stars as the titular Commissario Salvo Montalbano. Though younger and balder than his written counterpart, Zingaretti inhabits the Sicilian detective perfectly. A charming grump, his Salvo seems to bear the short temper of an entire culture. He prefers to eat well and eat alone, behaves as if, were it not for his unique gifts, no crime would ever get solved (a feature he perhaps shares with fiction's greatest detectives, from Holmes to Poirot to Marple to Morse), and possesses a near-obsessive need to uncover the truth. Montalbano heads his town's police station, though he remains beholden to the bureaucratic meddling of the district's police chief, headquartered in the nearby provincial capital. 

Early in the first episode ("The Snack Thief", which adapts the third novel in Camilleri's series), we are welcomed into Montalbano's home and his days – which often begin and end with a long swim in the Mediterranean Sea, which sits picturesquely in front of his own patio. As he eats his dinner, he gets a phone call from his long-suffering girlfriend Livia (voiced by Claudia Catani, played by Austrian actress Katharina Böhm) who expresses her disbelief that he continues to employ Adelina, a housekeeper who's the mother of someone he arrested. Shrugging off Livia's protests that one day the woman will surely poison him, Salvo continues to shovel down his broccoli with pasta with unabashed delight. The unvoiced answer to Livia's question is simple: Adelina is an amazing cook. For Salvo, that is all the reason he needs. 

Katharina Böhm as Livia
The developing relationship with Livia remains one of the most intriguing storylines in these early episodes. Throughout much of the novels, and the television series, Livia exists primarily as a voice on the telephone, and not necessarily a pleasant one. (Salvo gets lost in his work, fails to stay in touch, plans to meet are arranged and then cancelled or simply forgotten.) And for the first half of the inaugural episode, Livia is just that – a nagging voice on the phone.  But about halfway through, she shows up at Salvo's apartment. And for us (even for a viewer unfamiliar with her life on the page) and perhaps even for Montalbano, her physicality comes as a shock – as does Salvo's gentleness and unconcealed pleasure in seeing her. Livia is warm-hearted and feminine, but also quite strong in her own way. She pushes back against Montalbano's Old World masculinity, which is his professional strength and often personal deficit. He loves her, that much is clear, but he simply doesn't play well with others.

Montalbano’s tendency towards secrecy and isolation is also manifest in how he interacts with his 'team' at the police station. There he treats almost everyone with the impatient posture of a father who knows best and who believes the world would be perfect if only everyone did exactly what he told them to do, but who also, quite paternalistically, rarely explains why they should do so. At its core, what makes these stories so compelling is that Montalbano is such an captivating figure. He pushes Livia away at every opportunity, and yet seems unaware of how deeply he cares for her. He regularly mocks his deputy 'Mimi' Augello (Cesare Bocci), whose only fault seems to be that he is a man of different flavour of masculinity. And he depends on the loyalty of his right hand man Fazio (Peppino Mazzotta), but rarely lets him in on the crucial details of the plan that is afoot. 

Montalbano's barely concealed condescension towards his fellow officers (both above and below his authority) is a regular source of the shows most comic moments, but for all that, even by the second episode, you can see a team being built – one that includes even the hapless Officer Catarella (Angelo Russo), a clumsy but well-meaning oaf who falls into rooms like a Sicilian Kramer and whose spoken Italian is constantly being corrected by an exasperated Montalbano. Vigàta is a small town, provincial even in the provinces, and Montalbano just might be the right man, in the right place. 

Angelo Russo as Officer Catarella
The dialogue is snappy and fast moving, and sometimes I suspected that even if I spoke Italian, it would be challenging to follow the quick-witted and even quicker-speaking Montalbano! The flavour of Sicily is apparent not only in the language, but in the setting. The sea is a constant backdrop, and the location is almost another character in the story. Fugitives hide out in caves, interrogations are more likely to happen seaside or in a ramshackle immigrant colony seemingly carved into the side of hill than in the police interrogation rooms American crime procedurals favour. And perhaps a surprise to a North American viewer, the stories also bear witness to the multicultural and multilingual diversity of the islands' population in a single scene, you will hear characters speaking Italian, Arabic, and French, often in the same sentence. What is most impressive about this perhaps, at least to North American viewers, is that they speak these languages well: conversations in Arabic are actual conversations in dialect-appropriate Arabic, rather than a mere gloss. Montalbano’s Vigàta is a complicated and rich place – at the end of the first episode, you cannot help wanting to spend more time there.

Many of the tropes of classic detective fiction – inherited from the novels of Christie through Simenon and even Hammett in his lighter moments, and owing even more perhaps to the televised stories of Columbo – are on display. Montalbano lets people talk, performs sympathy (even when viewers have reason to suspect that he is feeling nothing of the sort), and engages victims and suspects with a knowing smile, building temporary, and sometimes as in the case of the young boy at the centre of the plot of the first episode not so temporary relations with those involved. In the end, the Sicilian Montalbano would fit comfortably in Philip Marlowe's Los Angeles: a principled detective who is his own moral universe, perfecting willing to take advantage of the corruption of others, and willing to make enemies of other cops, the press, the Mafia, and even the secret service if it means that justice will be done.
Many viewers may come to the series by way of the novels and no doubt it is extremely well-adapted but I tuned in with only nominal experience with the books. What Inspector Montalbano is, quite simply, is good television. And that's something which thankfully needs no translation. 

Inspector Montalbano airs on BBC4 in the UK. For U.S. and Canadian viewers, all nine seasons are currently available on Region 1 DVDs. For those who would like to read the books as well, all novels in the series are available in both paper and Kindle e-book format via Amazon and Chapters/Indigo. 

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

1 comment:

  1. Well explained. I came by way of the books.
    I'd like to add that part of the success of the TV series is in the richness of the characters, the dialogue, the plots and the attention to natural details. Luca Zingaretti is absolutely Montalbano.
    As a comparison, I watched the Wallander series, again having come to it via the books. The Swedish series was good. Despite Kenneth Branagh, the English TV version was bland. No dialogue , no development of characters and even the stories were sacrificed in the making. Such a pity.