Serpico: Observations and Thoughts


“I’m not denying for a minute that I’m attracted to the radical…I’m attracted to the questioner. I don’t know if life is possible without it.”- Quote from the documentary By Sidney Lumet (2016, Nancy Buirski).

It’s incredibly apt that each poster of this film that I find has a different shading to the face of Al Pacino, who plays the titular character, police officer Frank Serpico. A man who inhabited many different disguises, both metaphorically and literally, the real truth laying in his story is that he had to spend most of his time acting to reveal the truth, and the truth was so powerful that they had to act it out.

Serpico (1973) was directed by one of my all time favourites, Sidney Lumet, known best for 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976), which are all up in my pantheon of classics. Honestly, each film has its own aspects which empower it, Paddy Chayefsky script in Network is brilliant and shining, while Al Pacino absolute tears into the roles in both of his collaborations with Sidney Lumet, plus John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon is fantastic. 12 Angry Men too has a legendary status, being one of the most brilliant chamber pieces ever put on-screen, as Henry Fonda maneuvers throughout the ethics of 11 other jurors to challenge prejudices.

Naturally then, Lumet’s work in Serpico follows the similar human elements his work informally trademarked, as Frank Serpico presented to us at the beginning bleeding out in a car in the dark, navigates his way through a corrupt police system as an idealistic crusader hellbent on bringing to light the dirty underbelly of the New York Police Department. Al Pacino’s face is seared into cinema history, mainly for his roles where he presents the hidden depths of anger and violence which come bursting out, The Godfather saga and Scarface mainly, but Lumet plumbs a different sort of depth in Serpico, as the haze of darkness hanging over Al Pacino’s usual roles is surprisingly absent. Frank Serpico is a happy guy, at least to begin with. He works hard, plays hard, and loves and believes with his soul in what he does. It’s through the grinding bureaucracy, the infectious and slimy corruption of good men doing nothing and bad men exploiting their power, that Serpico enters into a world of frustration, danger and pain, but mostly on that side of pain more than anger (although when he gets angry, its electrifying). He is a man pushed to the extreme, while all he wants to do is his job. He doesn’t want to die for his cause, he’s a crusader not a martyr and ultimately he just wants to be a police officer without having to be a corrupt one. I’m sure the screenplay has been praised to high heaven, but the work of Norman Wexler and Waldo Salt on this script is iconic, and Al Pacino’s performance combined with Lumet’s direction makes this a true gold piece of cinema history.

What can I say that is new about Serpico? It certainly shares the same thematic pains of another film I saw recently although I did not address it on the blog, Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica, another iconic film from the Italian Neo-Realist movement. The real frustrations of even the smallest social actions, the true horror that lays exposed behind our shallow stories of evil gangsters and heroic cops is the cowardice and collective guilt carried by those in all levels of society, the protectors and attackers, the constant passing of the buck of responsibility around. Talking of Italian Neo-Realism, the producer of this film Dino Laurentiis not only produced classics such as Evil Dead II (1987, Sam Raimi) and Barbarella (1968, Roger Vadim), but he also produced two earlier reviewed Fellini films, La Strada and Nights Of Cabiria. Funny how things sometimes work.

The cinematography, that pure deep focus deep staged cinematography is a faded technique now, the glossy TV cinematography which we’re all accustomed to was nowhere to be seen at the time, and as a result the close-ups in the film feel immense in weight, as we study Serpico’s face for the signs of his feelings, his emotions. Honestly it’s that gorgeously subtle cinematography which allows the screen to breathe, wide and comfortable and only pulling us in tight for times of great intensity. There’s so much going on with the story, that I find it hard to focus on the more grounded elements, but without a doubt the score by Mikos Theodorakis, is lush and elegant and beautifully underscores the action of the film. He also created the score for Zorba The Greek (1969, Michael Cacoyannis), one of my favourite stories and one of my favourite scores of all time.

I’ve spent a lot of words referencing other films in this Observations and Thoughts post, but that’s because its cinematic history is so rich that I find it hard not to dive into. Of course the real power behind what makes Serpico great besides its cinematic presence, its real presence. The story of Frank Serpico’s fight against corruption was true, the front page story was published three years before the film was released. It exists as a testament and an incendiary indictment of a culture it was still very close to in time. Sidney Lumet’s commitment to the truth of the story, embellishing and re-moulding the real narrative as any film project will do to condense years of time and people into a couple of hours, means he never loses sight of the soul of Frank’s story, ending the film as Al Pacino reads Frank Serpico’s real speech before the Knapp Commission.

This interview shows a man still haunted by the pain of an unjust band of brothers whose main aim should be to serve and protect. This half interview half manifesto is a call by Frank Serpico to help really tackle with an incredibly nuanced and complex issue. The demonisation of communities and/or the police is in part a driving force of the degradation and the high standards he expects the police to maintain. It’s the power of Serpico himself, a reluctant demoralised hero who had courage and standards, and the excellence behind the team who created the film which mythologised him and disseminated his story, which keeps it relevant. Serpico works as a film, because of the questions it poses, and it works as an inspirational myth of reality because of the answers it gives. The conflict of police versus “x” runs deeps in today’s society, and the continued lack of accountability of those in positions of power continues to be a crucible for anger and violence in the world today. The world can still take a page from Serpico’s handbook.

In a world where ideologies are collapsing faster than a house of cards, its important that the lamps he lit stay lit, because if we only look down at the mud, we won’t see the stars


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Serpico: Observations and Thoughts

La Strada/Nights Of Cabiria

Fellini Films.jpg

In an interview with Charlie Rose I recently watched, Martin Scorcese is talking about Fellini. He is recounting when he wanted show his daughter 8 ½, however he decides not to show it to her as her first Fellini film, he instead guides her through her viewing by showing her the three films that preceded that. Now, prior to seeing the interview I had not seen La Strada or Nights of Cabiria but had seen La Dolce Vita and the aforementioned 8 ½. Being the cinema nut I am, I had lept to the films that were most obviously Fellini in my mind. However having now watched his collaborations with his wife Giulietta Mansina you really get the sense of an artist evolving into himself, even in the space of two films. This is not to say I didn’t like 8 ½ when I saw it, quite the opposite, the viewing of 8 ½ in the NFT 1 of the BFI will long stay in my mind as a life altering experience in the cinema. I just feel that now I have caught up with the two preceding La Dolce Vita I understand this titan of world cinema more than I did when just watching his 2 most famous films.

He is a filmmaker much talked about by film scholars as one of the greatest of all time, and without a doubt in my mind you can see this from just a few scenes in his 60s work. But by just watching La Dolce Vita with no prior knowledge of what got him there I tend to agree with Scorcese, that you just don’t understand what ‘got him there’.


La Strada opens in a small seaside town with a girl being in effect sold to an older man in order for him to take her around performing as part of his muscle man act. This seems a pretty grim situation from the off, however this is just the start for our tragic heroine Gelsomina played with incredible subtlety by Fellini’s muse Giulietta Mansina. Whilst in his later work Fellini focuses much more on internal turmoil and with the struggles of the mind, here Fellini is still working with reality as many great Italian directors had before him. Life is hard for the people of La Strada and getting by depends on solid hard work, going from town to town playing your act for different towns and audiences in order to get by. Anthony Quinn plays the brute Zampanò who subjects the innocent figure Gelsomina to an education in this life the hard way round. He is a man who knows this life and has grown jaded to others, he has no interest in friends or frivolities. Anthony Quinn plays him with such conviction that by the end of the film you really have no choice to be sick at the sight of him. He is such an intensely unlikeable figure, it hurts you to see such a man impose himself on Gelsomina throughout the film.

Giulietta Mansina gives a strange but incredible performance, she is often completely without dialogue and yet manages to convey intense emotion just through her face. The setting of the film in the world of circus acts and clowns makes sense of the performance. Much like the famous clowns of the silent era she uses expression to convey emotions more than in her dialogue. Whilst this may could end up as cloying or sappy, she uses these facial expressions with such aplomb it’s incredible. At points you can almost see inside her head to see how she is seeing a certain situation, something I’ve seen very few actors able to do just with their face. Much like a clown, Mansina paints her expressions on her face, this is yet again in complete contrast to Zampanò whose macho intensity leaves him with about 3 expressions he seems able to use, cynical, angry and neutral.

Fellini here uses the couples travels around different performances and encounters  with other circus performers to show a corruption of a soul. Gelsomina is clearly the innocent and Zampanò the weathered working performer. He performs the same shit routine to crowds year round, no interest in anything other than getting food or wine and maybe a shag on the side. Gelsomina being completely new to this world has to adapt, she has to shut up and do what he says despite not knowing anything of the trade she has been thrust into.

In terms of showing Fellini as a different director in terms of style, La Strada has Fellini at a crossroads. He is showing his movement slightly out of the realist stylings of his earlier work and moving into a more existential guise. This is not to say La Strada doesn’t have realist tendencies, but instead it serves more as a parable on human cruelty and corruption of innocence.


If La Strada has Giulieta Mansina as an innocent character, Nights of Cabiria has her playing the opposite of this. This is not the rolling countryside of La Strada, instead it is the seedy underbelly of a bustling city, in which prostitutes scrape a living by working at all hours of the day. Fellini here is still clearly interested in the underdogs of society, those that are far away from the glitz and glamour of La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ . Mansina enters the film as a ball of energy, after being rescued from a mugging which results in her almost drowning in a river she explodes with energy off the screen and displays a woman who knows exactly what kind of world she is in.

Cabiria (Giulietta Mansina) is not at all jaded by her life, she just accepts that this is what she must do to get by. However throughout the film she is always trying to find a way out, a way to escape from her life and move to something greater and more conventional. This theme of being discontent with the life that you are in is something Fellini is obsessed with, especially at this point in his career. Every film from his 50’s and 60’s work tackles this to varying degrees. The hope displayed by Cabiria is heartbreaking at points with Mansina putting in a performance completely opposite to her turn in La Strada but with as much passion and conviction. She won the best actress award at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, and with good reason. Cabiria is the heart of this film as the title may suggest, but it is Mansina’s performance that once again makes the audience really hope and care for her.

Fellini is once again rooting himself in reality but yet again he is toying with this reality, becoming a more adventurous filmmaker with more expressive camera movement and set design. He shows Rome as a dark city, one that does not much care for the underclass. Whilst the movie stars and priests live in massive highly decorated worlds, those having to scrape a buck live in bombed out wastelands left from the war. In one particularly striking sequence Cabiria comes across a man giving food and clothing out to the poorest of Italian society, instead of houses they are forced to live in caves in the ground. Cabiria is struck by the charity of the man and follows him, in a world in which people use her for their own pleasure she finds it fascinating to find a truly selfless man. This comes shortly after her encounter with a movie star who uses her to have a shoulder to mope on shortly after a falling out between him and his girlfriend. Cabiria is unimportant and doesn’t mean anything to him, however Cabiria is yet again fascinated by the wealth and opulence he lives in. Her story shows the yearning for something greater, a life more meaningful than what she has at the time maybe even more than Marcello’s in La Dolce Vita. Whilst he has everything and is looking for a more meaningful life in the glitzy world of the film world in Rome, Cabiria has nothing and just wants simply to be loved.

Fellini has a difficult relationship with Religion, whilst there is often a lot about it in his films he seems to find it impossible to not question it. He was not a religious man and yet Italy is so deeply rooted in Catholicism to not tackle it within his films would be an oversight. The way he portrays religious people can at times be positive, however it always seems to be blaming the church for something else. In this film for instance the church almost seems to be a vehicle for false hope and fear. Cabiria goes to mass and instead of feeling enlightened by the experience she is terrified by it and you can see her wondering if there is any point at all in praying if it doesn’t actually fix any of the thousands of people around hers problems. It is obvious here that he is looking at Religion in a highly critical light, as he does in many of his films.

Nights of Cabiria displays a director yet again evolving in style, moving towards even greater things. Cabiria shows all the verve and brio of a classic Fellini character but also the introspection and internal angst that would be the guiding forces of his next two films. The move towards more expressive and abstract sequences would come to a head in his later films but here the mix of realism and magic balances itself beautifully.

Before watching these films I may have understood the great man’s vision. But now having the route up to his other two masterpieces I can see the true breadth of his genius as a filmmaker. He is a much more emotional and individual force in the history of cinema than people give him credit for. He is at once brutal and tender in these films, blending the brutality of Italian Neo-Realism with a quintessentially Italian voice producing something truly amazing in the process. Essential viewing for anyone interested in understanding Fellini further than just the obvious masterpieces.


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La Strada/Nights Of Cabiria