In the evening following the announcement of the Official Selection for the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, residual excitement for all things Cannes had me visit the TIFF Cinematheque to watch what proved to be a striking pairing of previous prize winners from the festival. Michel Brault’s Les ordres (the 1975 Best Director winner, and only Canadian winner in this category) and Elio Petri’s Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, the 1970 Grand Prix winner), both cautionary exposés of corrupted bureaucracy, could not be less tonally alike.
Les ordres chronicles events of the 1970 “October Crisis”, where the War Measures Act (an amendment that would give the government more power as a measure to combat insurrection) was used to incarcerate 465 innocent civilians without charge, after Québécois separatists kidnapped two government officials. Unfolding in a docufiction structure, the film chooses five of the prisoners, and based off actual interviews with these victims, depicts the moral conundrum of whether or not it was appropriate to effect those measures.
While hardly the prototype for a Cannes Best Director Winner (a prize which, more often than not, appears to favour films that may be too divisive to win the Palme d’or, Grand prix or Prix du jury, though featuring some sort of distinctively stylish directorial flair), Michel Brault’s modestly rendered direction is nevertheless accomplished. Visually, Les ordres has a bifurcated structure, where events taking place within the prison are shot in colour, while anything that happens outside its confines is portrayed in black and white. One memorable shot illustrates the eventual release of Marie Boudreau, and as she crosses the threshold of where the prison’s confines meet the world beyond, the image fades in a transition from colour to black and white that is so subtle, one only realizes the effect moments later. But, for all the merit of its visuals, this is a film most notable for the execution of its tonality. So convincing is its realism, it was necessary for Les ordres to introduce the actors portraying five of the apprehended civilians with a statement of their name, and who they were playing, so as not to be mistaken for a literal documentary. Another film with a largely prison-based setting would likely err in an inclusion of caricatured, menacing jailers, but its understated depiction of the incarceration of the October Crisis’s victims is precisely what grounds Les ordres, and allows it to have such a chilling effect, demonstrating how it could be possible for such a bizarre, waking nightmare of a scenario to happen.
Meanwhile, Elio Petri’s Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto is an equal to Les ordres in its justified irreverence for authority, but it opts for an entirely different route to reach this eventual conclusion. An angry, though often humorous satire, the film is anchored by the portrayal of Gian Maria Volonté as the jaded head of a homicide department, enigmatically named “Il dottore”. After a coital encounter with his lover (Florinda Bolkan, in a superlative performance), with whom he has re-enacted various crimes he has witnessed for the consummation of their depraved erotic fantasies, Il dottore murders her, and proceeds to plant obvious clues to his guilt, in an act of defiance.
At first glance, it feels as though Volonté’s performance and the tone set by the musical score (executed with a twinkle in its eye, in what is surely one of Ennio Morricone’s greatest achievements amidst an embarrassment of riches) are perhaps too much: they are both so exaggerated that it seems as though Il dottore’s demeanour should make it glaringly obvious to his colleagues that he is the author of this crime. But, as the film progresses, it appears with increasing clarity that the thesis of this acidic satire is a brazen condemnation of a wilfully obstinate bureaucratic effort to keep its head in the sand, in regards to internal mismanagement and corruption.
While it would be tempting to see these films as time capsules for a bygone era, it would be… optimistic to think that scenarios such as those depicted in Les ordres or Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto do not still happen regularly. In Canada, the controversy and impact of the October Crisis made it seem as though mass detention of uncharged civilians could not possibly repeat, but just five summers ago during protests coinciding with the G20 Summit in Toronto, hundreds of innocent civilians were taken under arrest. Stories like these are why challenging films are still being made, and it appears as though there will always be a definite need for them.