Musings on Montalbano


Italy has been the birthplace of many great authors who have left their mark on the literary world. And the one we discuss today is Andrea Camilleri, a true lover of words. His series of books about Inspector Montalbano present elements of ancient Sicily kept very much alive in the modern idiom. The characters can inhabit both worlds quite seamlessly.

Camilleri’s most beloved literary character, Inspector Montalbano, is now appreciated worldwide thanks not only to the books, but also to the RAI broadcasts of the TV feature films. There are now 32 in all of these films. The love for Montalbano within Italy is not hard to understand, but how is it that a police officer from Sicily is now beloved from Finland to Japan, and all places in between?  Let’s examine some different elements of the stories to try and find the answer.

THE STORY A well written, credible narrative is the underpinning of each Montalbano story. Themes and characters are revisited, but each tale is self-contained at the same time. Camilleri is a master at this skill. Accurate local references are critical – each tale could only take place in the fictional town of Vigata. Most foreigners already have a specific idea of Italy, and of its South. Seeing the wonderful village, its streets, its sunsets and dawns involves the viewer who finds an anchor through the locality. Proof is this connection is the marked increase in tourism to the area of “Vigata” – the villages used to represent Vigata have become open-air museums where the TV producers occasionally host tours, sometime seven during the filming!

LANGUAGE: Most foreigners unfamiliar with Italy might assume there are only a couple of regions, and the one language. But the writing of Camilleri, and those who have come before him like Scascia, depend very much on the subtleties of the Sicilian dialect. And yet, in English translation, full enjoyment is still possible. The success of The Godfather films, and The Leopard which all keep the names, gestures and habits of Sicily very much in place have proven the appreciation of audiences for authenticity. It proves what a foreign audience wants from Italian TV products: the truth! In all of his works, Camilleri melds Italian language and Sicilian language, the precious “dialetto”, and this perfect blend is heard in the TV series. Even though some subtleties are missed, the audience can follow. The sounds and the facial expressions all convey the essence of Sicilian language.

What of violence? One notable absence in Inspector Montalbano is gratuitous bloodshed, which we often associate with crime drama. There is no shortage of crime of course, but the atmosphere is always delicate, perhaps reflective – not never morbid. Over the space of 32 feature films, the viewers are far more engaged with the various characters and locales than the issues of violent crime. In fact, it’s sometimes surprising how the crime wasn’t the focus after all – a classical literary gambit. And through the characters that inhabit the films, a range of Sicilian stereotypes are on show – the suave and over ambitious ladies’ man in Augello. And the loyal and sometimes too resourceful lieutenant in Fazio. Then the lovable but clumsy office manager Catarella. Perhaps he was destined for another role in life, but to Montalbano’s eternal chagrin, he has found a place at Vigata Station, and he’ll do his very best. And of course Luca Zingaretti’s acting is marvelous – he defines forever the voice, face and characteristics of Salvo Montalbano. Interestingly, he doesn’t resemble the detective of the novels – but we love them both equally.

Finally, and almost crucially: food. In a recent interview, Luca Zingaretti said that the food served in the scenes tends to be real, and the risk to his waist-line is real and constant on set! No-one will forget the fabulous indigenous dishes they see on screen - Trays full of arancini al ragù and pasta ‘ncasciata, huge plates of linguine allo scoglio: a joy to the eye and a delight to the palate… it’s often like a dream come true. As a detective, Montalbano seems to be able to make time stand still to eat lunch. Sometimes he’ll bring a colleague, but often it’s just a place to reflect – and often to mentally solve a crime.

Following the success of the original series, a collection of short stories by Camilleri titled The Young Montalbano have also been bought to the screen by the original producers and broadcasters. We learn that Montalbano grew up in the mountainous centre of Sicily before coming to Vigata. Another style, a different tone in Camilleris pallete. And in news to hand, yet another Camilleri book: “La Mossa del Cavollo” is to be brought to the screen.

Inspector Montalbano has spread far and wide all over the world, and naturally the success makes Italians proud. Hopefully Italian culture will keep on spreading around the world, thanks to these high quality TV series.


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