Those who still long for ‘Line of Duty’ or look back with nostalgia to the sunny days of ‘The Night Manager’ might want to welcome back ‘Inspector Montalbano’, which has hurtled into the gap in its inimitable Italian style right now, in season 13, BBC 4, on Saturday nights. The Inspector, Luca Zingaretti, looking even fitter, though not getting any younger, is matched with Sonia Bergamasco, as Livia, in a slightly closer long-distance relationship than in the previous series. The team of local policemen from previous series is all here, as we would expect, with the suggestion that a replacement is on the cards for one of their number.
This is Sicily, now, in the imaginary town of Vigata, where Salvo Montalbano is the Inspector of Police, living and working in impossibly beautiful surroundings, of ancient churches, honey-coloured villages, and a landscape that leads always to the sea. It is a sea, however, that barely separates Sicily from North Africa, and often the crimes – always solved by the team in a cooperative, evidence-based manner – are linked to drugs, and the tragedies that surround immigration to those shores. Corruption in government, even suggestions of Fascism, obstruction of justice, these are part of the plot. In other words, the author of the books on which the series is based, Andrea Camilleri – who is also responsible for the television production – never shies away from current events, in a country where politically these issues are especially divisive and difficult.
Where English detectives meet for a pint in slightly gloomy pubs, often in Oxford – even Midsomer can be a bit doomy – the Sicilian sun shines down on restaurant terraces at lunchtime, no matter how bloody the crime. Food is important. Friendship matters. A sense of humour is essential. Taking time to explore, discuss and reconstruct events is the way to solve Sicilian crimes. In doing so, the viewer is treated to an intelligent television series (in two-hour episodes) that creates multi-faceted characters who are able to express their emotions, even while holding them back. Montalbano is a tough cop, but one whose sense of humanity, of belonging to the same race that also creates a criminal, gives him tremendous depth and understanding.
Sometimes the lengthy interviews with ordinary members of the public – who may have seen or heard or know something – are gems complete in themselves: the woman who is a neighbour and jealous of wealth, the man who remembers how things were when he was a child, the priest who is torn between his holy vows of silence and a sense of communal responsibility. These minor encounters, each given dramatic space, never rushed, have a major impact on the pace as a whole, with the result that each story – usually from one book, or sometimes two short stories put together – has tone and texture.
There is also the delight of the Italian sensibilities. The body language, the hand gestures that accompany explosive outbursts and the occasional utter stillness that the actors create in moments of contemplation, these are all so different and yet so comprehensible. The sub-titles cannot keep up, but facial expressions and mime compensate.
Other Italian detective and police series that create this same kind of total immersion and complete characterisation include ‘Inspector Nardone’, a mini-series, shown in 2012 on BBC, based on the real-life character of Mario Nardone, set in 1950s Milan, in 12 episodes. Sergio Assisi plays Nardone, who creates a tightly knit team of policemen from a very disparate group of men, all of whom have brought to their jobs some individual trauma from the war.
This series is different from many others in that it has a very prominent female role, and also stars Georgia Surina, as a scientist and head of a chemical factory, which comes into one of Nardone’s investigations. It would be very hard to find a more delightful scene than the one in which Nardone is utterly smitten, and then realises that he has met his match in terms of intelligence and integrity. The complications of the cases – and how they all revolve around one larger crime of corruption– are worked out in a 1950s setting, a little muted, a little depressed, but always with good sleuthing.
Going back even further in time, there is the series ‘Inspector De Luca’, set in Bologna between 1930 and 1948, thereby bridging the end of the war, the fall of Mussolini and the awful aftermath, of who can be trusted, who was traitorous, and what will pull together a broken country. This, too, has been shown on BBC 4, in 2014. De Luca has his own demons, but he is an honourable man in a country stunned and divided by dishonour. It is based on books by Carlo Lucarelli, and shown as a series of four movies. We are never offered the ‘young De Luca’ as we are with ‘The Young Montalbano’, which came out as a series in 2012. If Morse can find success with ‘Endeavour’ then a young version of the Sicilian detective provides the back story to where we find Salvo Montalbano today.
What is so enjoyable about all of these Italian detective/police stories is their ability to show us people and places, customs and beliefs – ceremonies such as marriages and funerals – families, children, the elderly. Of course, probably these are not a lot more realistic than Oxford, Grantchester or Midsomer, nevertheless they hold up a mirror to a way of life in which we see ourselves reflected.