After the intolerably self-satisfied Salamander set the cause of Belgian TV back a couple of decades, BBC4’s Saturday night Eurocrime slot has taken itself off to sunny Italy for the next four weeks, running the four-part 2008 mini-series broadcast by RA1, adapting Carlo Lucarelli’s Inspector De Luca in 110 minute episodes. Instead of the double-episode routine, we will get a series of self-contained stories at Morsian length.
The mini-series, as I understand it, does not adapt any of Lucarelli’s novels but deals with Achille De Luca at an earlier stage of his career. The first episode introduces him as a Deputy Inspector, the youngest in all Italy, based in Rimini, where he seems to be the most put-upon and disregarded officer in a station enthused primarily by its close proximity to the holiday villa of Il Duce.
Yes, that’s Lucarelli’s USP (unique selling point): his central character is a detective of honour, a decent man who believes in the Law, who is trying to hold to his principles in a land where the Law is itself crooked, in Fascist Italy. But whilst the books are set at the end of World War 2, with Italy under dual occupation, the Germans holding the north, the Allies the south, the mini-series is set in 1938, when the only war taking place in the Spanish Civil War.
So: is Inspector De Luca worth our time, or is it only fit to point at and laugh?
The first point to make is that it is beautifully made: this is a land of sun and heat, enforcing a certain slowness on its occupants that is reflected in the unhurried pacing of the story. The time is recreated beautifully; the suits, the dresses, the buildings. De Luca, played with an underlying sense of frustration by Alessandro Preziozi, has a handsome face, with thick brown hair that he constantly has to brush back with his hands, and a full but neat moustache. He’s prone to lounging around in the torrid evenings in his vest and braces (this is 1938: belts do not feature), looking like something the women will lap up.
The story is relatively simple: one morning, on the beach, the body of a woman is found on the beach by two Nuns and a group of orphans, killed by a single bullet. The Police arrive, with De Luca in tow, though it is he who identifies the woman as a well-known local prostitute, Miranda, better known as ‘Luscious Butt’. The Chief of Police decides that the killer must be her pimp: he is picked up, a confession is beaten out of him and he is sent to Rome for trial, and the squad receive congratulations from Il Duce on their splendid success which, as the Chief later points out, makes De Luca’s doubts and his determination on a private investigation into a slander on Il Duce, an accusation that he is wrong. And everyone know that Il Duce cannot be wrong.
However, De Luca persists. He has no official authority, and such support as he can command is snatched privately, behind people’s backs. Reluctantly, he works with two others, journalist Gabriele Dannunzio and Judge Trapatanni, who are members of an anti-fascist group.
From the beginning of the story, suspicion points to Count Ultimperger, whose villa in this hot and shadeless land is a miracle of internal coolness. The Count is well-placed in one political faction, undoubtedly a future minister, favoured by Count Ciani (who is not identified for the home audience, leaving the British audience to potentially fail to grasp this significance, unless they already know that Ciani was Mussolini’s son-in-law). In pursuing an investigation that threatens the career of a man like this, De Luca is edging out precariously on more than one shaky limb.
Especially as Colonel Silvestri, a figure involved with both Il Duce’s personal guard AND a differing political faction, keeps ointerfering. At first, he warns De Luca off his private investigation, then he switches to demanding that De Luca bring the murder weapon to him, personally.
And then there’s Laura: Countess Laura Ultimperger, to be precise, played by the utterly gorgeous Polish actress Kasia Smutniak. Laura, we will ultimately learn, to no great surprise, is the murderer, but in the meantime she attracts De Luca (he’d have to be several weeks dead for her not to have), seduces him and ultimately abandons him, with Silvestri’s aid.
De Luca tries hard, tries to the bitter end to bring justice to the villains, but it has always been an uphill struggle and Preziozi plays De Luca as a man who, underneath his idealism, has always strongly suspected he will not be allowed to complete his task. Indeed, he can’t: Laura’s alibi is false, but it cannot be exposed for her alibi is Il Duce, and that would expose his alibi as being false…
De Luca’s realisation at that point that he has reached an immovable object is desperate but final. Worst still, it leads directly to his promotion of Inspector, and transfer to Rome, though his first act there is to destroy evidence against Dannunzio as an anti-Fascist…
Was it any good? The story was not free from cliche, though the overall, low-key approach taken by everyone to everything (except singing the praises of Il Duce) prevents any of these from becoming offensive by rendering them somewhat insignificant. The plot is primarily a peg upon which to hang a study of this place, this time, this strange world where an honest Policeman is rare and where Justice, even if pursued, is unlikely to be met.
De Luca’s not any kind of super character. He’s honest and dogged, but he’s also somewhat undemonstrative. He thinks about what he does, but comes to no miraculous deductions and sometimes has to be led. In getting involved with Laura, he makes a bad mistake, of which he is aware, and which hurts him badly at the end, but then again it’s very easy to see how someone who looks like Kasia Smutniak – cool, self-contained, very aware of the effect she creates, and overwhelmingly beautiful – could cause a man to act against his better judgement.
De Luca is, at the end of the day, a maverick, but only in the sense that he is the decent, ordinary copper, doing his job, whilst those around him are tainted by the hand of fascism and the requirement to squeeze things into pre-determined lines.
Overall, this isn’t anything remotely as compelling asThe Killing or The Bridge, and it would not be a pain to miss, but nor is it irritating and risible, like Salamander. It’s slow, but in the sense of not hurrying, rather than dragging, and it’s beautifully made, although it possesses a certain insubstantiailty due to its lack of urgency. It’s central character is, so far, underplayed and needs development, but overall it’s a pleasant distraction, and it’s not going to run for long. What sells it the most is its time and setting: this is a foreign world at a fraught time, and to be placed in it is thought-provoking.
Book me in for next Saturday.