The Action Moves South

First we had the French Spiral; then the Scandinavians moved in with a certain dark broodiness – Wallander, followed by The Killing, then Borgen. Those of us who are not averse to reading subtitles, and who like  our police dramas to take us into slightly different territory (both geographically and culturally) have been very well served by BBC4 over the past two or three years.

For the past nine weeks the Saturday night action has moved further south and it has been the turn of the Italians to entertain us with the RAI series of Inspector Montalbano. I confess I was delighted to see this series appear in our schedules. In early 2011, one episode of the series was shown as part of an “Italian Noir” night and I wanted to see more. I even searched the internet for DVDs of the series but could find none with English subtitles. Now I have had my chance.

The series is based on the series of novels by Andrea Camilleri. I read August Heat (one of the most recent novels) around 2 years ago and became hooked. There is a comedic side to Camilleri’s writing which comes out well in the TV series. It is, however, a side which has a rather bitter edge at times and one can feel a certain frustration with aspects of Italian public life creeping through.

Salvo Montalbano is played by Luca Zingaretti, and (of course) has his personal quirks (a weakness for Sicilian seafood) and a maverick nature which (of course) leads him into confrontation with his superiors. Talking of which, it will take a little while for Brits to work out the relationships between the different jurisdictions in the Italian justice system. But you coped with it in Spiral and Wallander, didn’t you? There is sometimes a moroseness about Montalbano, though not quite of the Morse kind. His long-suffering, though very often absent, girlfriend, Livia, has to take second place to the Job and one of the more implausible things about the series is that, in spite of being let down on so many occasions she seems so willing to forgive and forget – week after week.

For me, the thing that grates most is the portrayal of Catarella, the policeman who mans the phones and the front desk at the Prefecture. In the English translations of the books he is given a Bronx accent, but in the series he is simply a bit of a simpleton who mixes things up. I imagine that the actor who plays him is possibly an Italian “national treasure” with a reputation for playing this kind of role.

However, the real star of the show and of the series is Sicily, and in particular the town of Ragusa which stands in for the fictional Vigata as the setting of most of the action. Every episode begins with a long sequence of aerial footage of the town and its environs. It is worthwhile watching this carefully to try to get some idea of the relationship between the different locations, whether it is Montalbano’s seafront villa (he spends quite a bit of time there, even when working) or the public buildings in the town centre. It is all glorious Mediterranean baroque architecture and lit by a glorious Mediterranean sunlight. I imagine that the Sicilian tourism industry has been living off this series in Italy for a little while now, and I suspect that there will be a few more bookings from Brits now. I am adding Ragusa to my list of places I want to visit.  There is already a “Montalbano Sites Tour” running in Ragusa. Expect to see it grow this year.