by Lisa Cordaro As a fully paid-up Sicilian, I’ve come to Inspector Montalbano unforgiveably late. BBC Four began showing the series in February, but over the last year I’ve been chary of the foreign language crime shows on TV. Most of them seem to be shot through blue filters and permeated with Nordic bleakness. Let’s face it: life’s hard enough already without looking to Pinteresque silence and frozen murder scenes for entertainment.
How wrong I was. Montalbano brings Mediterranean sunshine to the genre, and it’s inescapably Italian: think A Touch of Frost but younger, sexier and livelier. I watch with fondness as I recognise all the national characteristics: food, family and gesticulation. In one of the episodes Salvo Montalbano arrives at his favourite restaurant, only to find it closing down. Crestfallen, he wails at the owner: ‘What will I do now?’ A crisis indeed, because if you know anything about Italians, you’ll know they march on their stomach.
Based on the novels of Andrea Camilleri, the programme is set in Vigata, a fictional town in Sicily. Montelusa is the provincial centre where the chief of police, Signor Bonetti-Alderighi, plays politics, issues diktats and generally makes a nuisance of himself – particularly with Montalbano. The exteriors are gorgeous; shot in a variety of locations including Modica and Scicli, they showcase the island at its beautiful best.
Typically for a detective show, the intense, enigmatic Montalbano (Luca Zingaretti) has a complicated, on-off distance relationship with his girlfriend, Livia. As if that isn’t enough, Camilleri allows Montalbano to live up to the Italian male stereotype by tempting him with a bevy of sirens passing through. Some he manages to resist, others not quite so successfully. The good news is that, unlike some fictional cops, Montalbano doesn’t have a drink problem, or indeed any dodgy behavioural issues. He’s sane, sober and smart casual in muted colours – Italians don’t do scruffy, it’s bad for la bella figura.
Montalbano lives in a classic beach house on the south coast at Marinella. He drives a dusty black Fiat and drinks espresso on his terrace. Predictably, he employs a matronly housekeeper, Adelina, who can rustle up a mean caponata at will. When he does finally sit down to his dinner after a long day, the running joke is that he never gets to eat it – he’s always interrupted by colleagues.
Montalbano’s subordinates provide solid support. The one exception is Domenico ‘Mimi’ Augello, his deputy, who is married but also a hopeless slave to skirt-chasing. Next in line is Giuseppe Fazio, a dedicated type on whom Montalbano relies to get the job done. Keeping them all dazed and confused is Catarella, their manic desk sergeant. A masterclass in slapstick, he’s deeply comedic, but underneath the hysterics is actually very good at his job. Montalbano’s rapport with the local pathologist, Dr Pasquano, is fractious and funny. Trading thinly veiled sarcasm over a series of cadavers, their exchanges make excellent theatre – the cool, collected atmosphere of Silent Witness it is not.
In Sicily the proverbial elephant in the room is the Cosa Nostra, but Montalbano as a programme doesn’t shrink from the issue. In a recent episode, ‘La Pista di Sabbia’ (‘The Track of Sand’; season 7, ep. 3), the detective doesn’t awake to find a horse’s head in his bed. Rather a whole thoroughbred has been strangled outside his house, lying dead on the beach. It’s an upsetting scene. ‘Stronzo!’ mutters Montalbano through gritted teeth, referring to the low-lifes responsible – and he has a very good idea of their identity.
The drama touches on the ways the insidious tentacles of organised crime reach into all aspects of island life. Businesses are torched, pizzo (protection money) extorted, smuggling, shootings, bent coppers, officials on the payroll and worse. The main crime families on Montalbano’s patch, the Sinagras and the Cuffalos, get regular namechecks. In ‘The Track of Sand’ the Cuffalos feature, acting on a vendetta to stop a top equine runner from winning serious prize money at a national race meet.
I was told once by a Sicilian that back in the day, it wasn’t difficult to be recruited by the Mafia. Contextualised within a period of comparative poverty in the post-war Italian south, it’s easy to understand why some might elect to collaborate. As a man of honour you and your family would be looked after, with just a few quibbling conditions: loyalty, omertà and a non-negotiable exit from employment.
Thankfully my own relatives thought better of taking this route, otherwise today I’d be Meadow Soprano, telling civilians that my family is in ‘waste management’.
In my view, honesty is always the best policy. The next best thing is watching Inspector Montalbano over antipasti and a glass of red. If, like me, you’re a latecomer to the show, past seasons are available on DVD with more to be released in 2013. I’d strongly recommend them.
Lisa Cordaro, November 2012