It doesn’t take long for Damiano Damiani’s ‘How to Kill a Judge’ (1975) to get all ‘meta’ on our asses as it opens with Franco Nero playing a film director, Giacomo Solaris, having just released a movie about the assassination of a corrupt Sicilian judge. When said magistrate turns up dead in “real life” Solaris takes it upon himself to flush out the murderer, not so much out of any sense of civic duty but more from the guilt he now feels because his film has now become a huge box office sensation due to its supposed prescience (something that apparently happened to Damiani for real).
Solaris’ investigation soon stirs up a hornet’s nest with paranoia quickly spreading throughout the worlds of business, politics and organised crime, all of which had links to the judge meaning all start suspecting the other of secretly ordering the assassination.
Such provocation initiates the defence mechanisms of those in power: loose ends are immediately eliminated, potential liabilities exterminated and scapegoats manufactured. These are not the actions of those with nothing to hide so Solaris is convinced he’s on the right track… but is he?
What’s immediately striking about Damiani’s thriller is how it deconstructs itself and the stereotypical Italian thriller film before reconfiguring itself into… well, what exactly is this we’re dealing with here? It certainly appears to be an exposé of civic corruption but it also seems to dabble with the poliziotteschi, Mafia flicks, conspiracy yarn and even Giallo genres. All we know is people are dying, threats are being made and the links between the realms of business, crime and politics have been forced into a reluctant shifting motion.
By the time the killer is revealed and all is uncovered it feels perversely anti-climactic and radically unsatisfying as though Damiani has deliberately sabotaged his own movie to piss the audience off, with the film itself even declaring this as a resolution that will please (almost) nobody. It’s as though the crime itself is immaterial yet this is also consistent with a lot of Damiani’s work as we frequently get the impression with his films that the mechanics of plot are less important than his exploring of the environment, characters, institutions and systems of power surrounding it. It’s not the murder, or even the motive, that’s of interest but what it has revealed. The killing is simply a catalyst.
Besides, the frustration the viewer might experience at the somewhat unrealistic pay-off is certainly nothing compared to the corresponding frustration those attempting to combat corruption must experience at the apparent utter futility of it all.
Damiani’s biggest problem here, though, is that he might’ve bitten off slightly more than he can chew, that he’s maybe attempting an elaborate trick to demonstrate the limitations of cinema and the social impact of the art form whilst also addressing vitally important issues in Italian society but the sleeve of his cape has slipped a little and we can see his fingers slightly fumbling the deck.
Still, Damiani is a constantly compelling filmmaker with a captivating style and energy and a ferocious willingness to tackle important material head-on. The cinematography and camera work combine an aesthetic allure with insightful intelligence and Franco Nero delivers another strong performance as the nod-to-Tarkovsky named Solaris.
This might not be the best of the Damiani/Nero collaborations but it’s still a strong, engrossing, incredibly well made movie and if it leaves you a little infuriated well, just maybe that’s the point.