Watching the Detectives: Khristine Shares her Favorite Italian Detective Series

Detective Montalbano (Il Commissario Montalbano) 1999-present – Montalbano and the Coroner’s Cannoli

The Italians seem to really like television detective/crime series, and there are quite a few that are available on DVD with English subtitles….Inspector VivaldiInspector NardoneInspector Coliandro, and even Donna (“Lady”) Detective. Also Inspector ManaraThe Bastards of Pizzofalcone, and the Italian remake of Nero Wolfe, all of which will be covered here soon. But most popular, and longest running by far is the Detective Montalbano series, scripted from a seemingly endless well of stories by noted Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri. As I count, Camilleri, who died last year at the age of ninety-three, wrote twenty-seven novels as well as a multitude of short stories featuring Commissario Salvo Montalbano. The popularity of this character even spawned a prequel series, Young Montalbano.

The locations for Camilleri’s imaginary towns of Vigata and Montelusa are a patchwork of several coastal towns and the surrounding country within the southernmost tip of the Island of Sicily. Many of the scenes seem to be filmed early in the morning before the residents are abroad, as there is often an eerie emptiness to the bleached out streets of Ragusa that makes a dramatic backdrop for the action. It’s a strange kind of beauty. The location of Montalbano’s apartment, meant to be the imaginary Marinella, an area of the imaginary Vigata, is actually a beachfront neighborhood in the beautiful town of Punta Secca, complete with lighthouse. Many of the episodes begin with Salvo’s morning swim, and sometimes he finds things we’d rather not find at the beach!  The various towns used for the film locations have greatly increased their income from tourism due to the popularity of the series, and the residents seem to welcome “Montalbano’s pilgrims.”

The Detective Montalbano series has been running for twenty years, with the same lead actor and, for the most part, the same supporting actors, which in itself is completely amazing. They seem so real, partly because they are extremely gifted actors, and partly because we have watched them age over the years in real time. Salvo Montalbano (Luca Zingaretti) is an interesting mix of character traits. He is ever faithful to his long-distance girlfriend Livia, and sees her only intermittently, since she lives far to the north in Genoa. And yet, if she phones him at an inconvenient time (in other words, when he is hungry), he has no problem making up some sad excuse to cheat on her with several cannoli. There have been three actresses who have filled the role of Livia over the years, and in some seasons we only get to hear her voice at the other end of the phone. Though Salvo is a “real tough guy,” he is often at the receiving end of one of Livia’s well-deserved tongue-lashings, from which he emerges both chastened and bewildered (and hungry). He’s a hot-head (though rarely out of control), deeply intelligent, intuitive, and a man of integrity, compassionate, likable, and with great personal charm. But he does, on occasion, display childish self-absorption when it comes to his obsession with food. When his friend Calògero, owner of his favorite local seafood eatery tells him that he will be retiring, Montalbano’s mouth drops open and he responds, “But what about me?” Adding richness and complexity to his character are various dream sequences where, as is often the way with dreams, his deepest fears and his truest desires are revealed.

Salvo’s close friend, and second in command, “Mimi” Augello (Cesare Bocci) is a world-class ladies’ man who too often can’t control his impulses, even becoming entangled with suspects while Salvo does his best to mitigate the risk. Augello is competitive and can be resentful of Montalbano’s authority, which leads him into troubling situations. Detective Fazio (Peppino Mazzotto) is analytical, efficient, loyal, and always has Montalbano’s back. He’s the youngest member of the team, and very appealing. Officer Catarella (Angelo Russo) is the comic relief in each episode. He is a complete bumbler, confusing names, walking into doors, sometimes falling on his face, and can usually be found in a state of hysteria somewhere around the police station. Eventually, he is sent on a computer course and turns out, to his colleagues’ astonishment, to be a computer genius. Though he now has become a useful member of the team, his talent for physical comedy is still front and center.

Many of the crimes Montalbano and his team investigate are fairly dark and brutal. Often the stories revolve around Mafia killings by the Cuffaro and Sinagra families (it is Sicily, after all), as well as sexual violence, so be forewarned. This won’t bother most true aficionados of crime dramas. I’m not one, so if you are more interested in the characters and their relationships, there is also plenty here to sink your teeth into. And well mixed in are scenes that are truly absurd and very funny, leaving Montalbano with a look of stupefaction on his face.  

That director Alberto Sironi, who died in 2019, chose true Sicilians to fill all the secondary roles and those of the extras adds a dimension of verisimilitude unlike what we see in most television series. He had to convince the producers, who feared that Italian viewers would not understand the Sicilian dialect, to allow him to spend months visiting Sicily’s regional theaters to choose the actors. They are really, really good and provide the flavor of the region which would not have been served by “Italian” actors.

You can order all of Andrea Camilleri’s books, the Detective Montalbano DVD series, and Young Montalbano through CLAMS (clamsnet.org). In addition, you can stream the first 28 of the 37 episodes of Detective Montalbano on Hoopla, available to Massachusetts residents with a Boston Public Library free ecard. To get your very own BPL ecard, visit https://www.bpl.org/ecard/

To check out more of Khristine’s Italian movie recommendations, check out Un Progetto Speciale – Part 6!