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Inspector Montalbano – An Antidote to Nordic Gloom

November 13, 2013

For the past few years, drama on British TV has been a battleground for foreign imports. Tight, taut American series like The Wire, Breaking Bad and Homeland have been vying with dark Scandinavian thrillers like Wallander, Borgen and The Killing.

Of late we Brits have produced little to rival the foreign fare, with the exception of good old Aunty Downton. While shows like The Wire smack you in the face, and Borgen envelops you in a morass of Nordic gloom, Downton Abbey proceeds like a slow waltz with an elderly relative.

These shows deserve their massive audiences and Emmy accolades. But one series with a growing cult following provides a welcome contrast to the slick, immaculately-produced mass-market drama that dominates our flat screens.

I speak of Inspector Montalbano, another European import that leaves one wondering how any politician could have conceived of a political union between two diverse cultures such as those of Denmark and Southern Italy.

Montalbano is a crime series based on the stories of the Sicilian novelist Andrea Camilleri. The setting is a coastal town full of gorgeous old buildings built of honeyed stone. The inspector in question is Salvo Montalbano, played by Luca Zingaretti. With his motley crew of detectives and assistants, Salvo solves a succession of murders that convince you that violent crime is not the sole preserve of the Mafia. What provides extra spice for me is that he bears a distinct physical resemblance to a character who narrowly failed to bring down my business many years ago. But there the resemblance ends. Whereas my protagonist was Iago made flesh, Salvo is charming, upright and incorruptible.

The series is clearly produced to a tight budget, because many of the scenes rotate between Salvo’s seafront home, where he downs endless espressos on his balcony, and the Inspector’s favourite restaurant – seafood of course. When he’s not saying ciao to the local fisherman outside his balcony and devouring cephalopods over long lunches, he puts in the hours at an office any self-respecting Northern European would regard as a primitive throwback. No laptop on his desk, no mobile chirruping in the inside pocket of his elegant suit. Technology is for the other ranks, including Catarella, a uniformed officer so clumsy, disorganised  and hysterical that he would surely be packed off to the Sicilian equivalent of Bedlam were it not for his fiendish ability to hack his way around the laptops of suspects.

The said Catarella also serves as Salvo’s gatekeeper, passing on messages and putting calls through (on the landline of course) with a demented, high-camp aplomb that reminds me of Manuel from Fawlty Towers.

Everybody seems in awe of Salvo, apart from his bosses, who regard him as a bit of a loose cannon.  Oh, and the local TV station, that never misses the opportunity to stick the knife in when it believes that the great man is falling down on the job.

He is treated by the public and his colleagues with a deference that would have the average British police inspector spitting with envy. His subordinates call him “dottore”, a respectful address that does not imply he holds a doctorate, much as the term sheikh in the Middle East isn’t exclusively reserved for a religious scholar.

His world is suffused with power structures that don’t conform to what we would think of as an establishment. People of power in Sicily can be Mafiosi, the wealthy and local politicians not afraid to use their influence to dubious ends. Salvo stands out as a beacon of rectitude, even if he’s not afraid to cut corners in the pursuit of justice. He’s good looking in a bull-like kind of way, and is what young Brits would call a babe magnet. And babes there are aplenty, most of them beautiful, even though many end up as beautiful corpses.

Episodes of Montalbano unfold rather than explode. There are many diversions – most of them around Salvo’s somewhat complicated personal life. In this he’s similar to Inspector Morse. And just as episodes of Morse frequently ran way beyond the one-hour format that most TV stations regard as the limit of the average viewer’s attention span, so the average Montalbano is as long as a feature film.

I love the series because it portrays a world very different to the one we Northern Europeans inhabit. A world of corrupt institutions, nods and winks, unspoken influence and implicit hierarchies, all played out in the beauty of a southern Mediterranean town in which everyone has time to relax, eat, drink, plot grisly murders and solve crimes. Yes, there’s corruption up North too, but in Sicily it seems to be the devil’s instrument in a glorious symphony. And the Swedes and the Danes are fairly similar to the Brits, whereas the Sicilians are often spectacularly different.

If Downton is a slow waltz, Montalbano is a leisurely open air lunch in the company of lively and unpredictable friends. But a lunch where there’s a head of the table, and most people know where they should be sitting without having to be told.

Despite the pervasive presence of the Mafia – which is not overplayed in the series, by the way – Montalbano must be doing wonders for tourism in Sicily, and rightly so. For there are few more beautiful parts of Italy, and few locations in Europe with a richer and more diverse cultural heritage. Not surprising, given that Sicilian DNA boasts strands from the Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, Arab. Norman and Spanish colonists who for the last three millennia fought over and ruled this Mediterranean jewel.

Which makes me wonder whether the series’ success might not open the door to drama from other countries around the Med, and especially Egypt and the Maghreb region – Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. And further afield, from the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula.

While it’s unlikely that the grossly overacted soaps that often serve as staple fare in those parts of the world would appeal to Western audiences as anything more than comic curiosities, there are plenty of talented writers and actors in the region capable of producing material that would have a wider appeal beyond their home audiences.

Two of the more impressive performances by Arab actors in recent years have been those of Ashraf Barhom as the brave and dignified Saudi police chief investigating an Al Qaeda-style terrorist attack in The Kingdom, and Ghassan Massoud as Saladin in Ridley Scott’s Crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven. I would love to see those guys as leading players in Arab drama that might help Western audiences see beyond the usual hackneyed stereotypes.

In any event, Inspector Montalbano shows that you don’t need to psychopaths, big sweaters and seasonal affective disorder to reach a respectable international audience. Programme makers from sunnier climes take note.

From → Film, Media, Middle East, Social, UK, USA

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