In the heat of late summer, San Michele al Tagliamento is a humid emulsion of corn fields, cypress trees, and silent streets. Sitting along the border between Veneto and Friuli, in the northeast of Italy, it’s a rural town in which nothing ever happens, everyone knows each other, and the sun throws everything into a somnolent lockdown—the concrete blazing, the air liquid. Ostensibly a portrait of a man and his daily routine, Alessandro Comodin’s The Adventures of Gigi the Law is also a much larger canvas of the place he roams, a landscape teeming with intimations of sinister mysteries and wondrous revelations. What kicks off as a crime procedural swells into a kind of fairytale, and an anonymous stretch of countryside turns into a microcosm where desire and dread, fear and awe leak into one another. Gigi the Law brims with wide-eyed wonder, the same that’s frozen on its protagonist’s face. At its most lyrical it finds beauty within the tedium of small-town life; it’s this receptivity to poetry, this susceptibility to the epic banal, that turns Gigi the Law into a cumulatively poignant oddity.
Gigi (Pier Luigi Mecchia, the director’s uncle) is a cop who’s been stranded in these sun-scorched plains all his life. He inhabits an old house tucked in an oasis of palms and acacias, a thick forest that triggers all manner of altercations with neighbors concerned the trees will either attract a deluge of pests or fall into their own gardens. The preamble—a seven-minute static shot of Gigi guarding his Eden in the dead of night while a neighbor (offscreen) threatens to destroy it with pesticides and chainsaws—exemplifies the film’s shape and tone. Perched somewhere between documentary and fiction, Gigi the Law unfurls as a series of vignettes—nearly all captured in static shots—tracking Gigi’s everyday peregrinations and loosely centered on the tragedy he witnesses early: a young woman throws herself atop railroad tracks on the outskirts of town, and Gigi begins suspecting the shell-shocked lad who first notices the body just off a level crossing. Was it suicide or murder?
The whodunit tension throws an air of mystery over the proceedings, but Comodin’s script never commits to a conventional crime film scaffolding. The plot is evanescent, the narrative free-floating, and Gigi’s investigations share as much screen time as his restless flirting with a new recruit handling the police radio, Paola (Ester Vergolini, whose voice ricochets inside the man’s car for most of the film, her face only bobbing up at the very end). Not to mention the long, seemingly aimless rides with colleagues across fields and farms.
There’s a circular, looped quality to Gigi’s meanderings, which dovetails with impasses radiating from the landscape. This is Comodin’s native turf, and the writer-director shows a perceptive eye for what’s possibly its biggest, most tragic paradox. The plains may be sprawling, the vistas endless, but they belie an inescapable claustrophobia more like a straitjacket than an immense canvas of possibility. Marooned in the proverbial middle of nowhere, Gigi and co have nowhere to go and nowhere to be, and it feels tragically fitting that, of all places, the people of San Michele should choose to kill themselves on the railroad tracks. Comodin repurposes the level crossing as the town’s last frontier, a portal into a world that looks tantalizingly close but remains forever beyond everyone’s reach.
Further troubling the film’s docu-fiction credentials, this woman’s death—and the several others Gigi mentions along the way—was based on a real-life series of suicides that plagued San Michele and its neighboring villages over the years. But if Gigi the Law sometimes echoes the desperation of Bruno Dumont’s Humanité—another study of a small-town cop looking into some mysterious deaths—the film mostly retains a lilting tone.
Credit for that goes to Mecchia himself, who swaggers into it—shades forever on, a whistle dangling from his pocket and a cigarette from his mouth—as the town’s legend, a police officer with some very unorthodox ideas about his job and jurisdiction. There’s nothing threatening about him; the aura he emanates throughout is one of childlike stupor and heartfelt concern (even the sleazy intercom flirting with Paola or the threats to his neighbors don’t scan as particularly menacing). A non-professional actor (and a real-life cop), Mecchia plays himself, and in a film that prioritizes authenticity above all, cinematographer Tristan Bordmann trades in long takes, which here function as windows, passageways helping each scene find and breathe to its rhythm.
The choice comes at a price. Flamboyant and magnetic as Gigi can often seem, there are times when the protracted exchanges (with Paola, his neighbors, and coworkers, in a mixture of Italian and the local dialect, friulano) overstay their welcome. The preamble is a great case in point—a quarrel that seems forever on the brink of petering out, the comedic impact and tension faded long before it’s actually over. I left Gigi the Law wondering if what I felt in those moments was a sort of fatigue, and whether Mecchia was, in a way, somewhat responsible for it. His delivery, at times stilted, others self-conscious, seemed to further undermine the film’s rhythm, as if taking the viewer out of cinematic reality. But the more I think about it, the more this break now strikes me as its own kind of poetry, and the poetry Comodin yanks from his uncle and his surroundings brings Gigi the Law closer to the authenticity the film strives for. As embodied by Mecchia, Gigi is at once unhinged and graceful, a fabulist keen to tweak his experiences in all sorts of exaggerated ways. He crafts a performance (if one can even call it such) that keeps eluding us, shifting between moods—between the cantankerous and the vulnerable, the garrulous and the circumspect—and keeping our senses in a state of extreme acuity.
It’s this shapeshifting quality that makes even the most surreal moments believable—as when Gigi’s lawn, late at night, grows into a maze where strange apparitions weave in and out of the plants. As a garden turns into an enchanted realm, a jungle out of which one senses anything could emerge, Gigi’s awe is the film’s, and ours too.
The Adventures of Gigi the Law premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.