Before the pandemic hit, we had planned a family vacation to Sicily. Perhaps in 2021 we will be able to make that trip, but until then, we are enjoying Sicily by watching the Italian series, Inspector Montalbano, starring Luca Zingaretti as Salvo Montalbano, the police chief in the fictional town of Vigata. The series is based on the novels and short stories by Italian author Andrea Camilleri, who began writing the very popular books when he was nearly 70. The show is in Italian, but the characters often speak in a dialect common among the Sicilians. (The episodes, available in the U.S. with a subscription to MHz Choice, include English subtitles.) And while there’s plenty of spoken dialogue, the actors, Zingaretti included, punctuate their words with hand gestures and facial expressions that need no translation.
Camilleri died on July 17, 2019, and after reading the obituary in the New York Times, my husband began to read the books. He suggested that we watch the TV series, and we were immediately hooked.
During an interview available on YouTube, Zingaretti expresses surprise that the series is so popular in the U.S. (The area in Sicily where the series is filmed has become a tourist attraction.) The production may be set in Sicily, but to Baby Boomer Italian Americans, the people we see on screen are very familiar to us. They were our grandparents, aunts, uncles, distant cousins, and neighbors who made up our community growing up. They spoke Italian dialects, sometimes from Sicily, other times from Naples or Calabria. The actors oftentimes bear an uncanny resemblance to someone we knew. With close family members who came from the “old country” now gone, there’s something comforting about spending time with these people and listening to their stories.
The Mafia, of course, is still active in Sicily. Montalbano and the officers he supervises are hard working, honest, and loyal. That’s not always true of those in authority, including Montalbano’s supervisor, as well as many of the prosecutors. While Montalbano isn’t afraid to confront Mafia bosses, he also is skilled at working with them. Less serious offenses may be given a pass while he zeroes in on Mafia kingpins and foot soldiers who commit heinous crimes.
But Mafia related crimes don’t dominate the series. Family conflicts often turn violent and are responsible for the murders that Montalbano and his officers are called to investigate. There are sex crimes, financial shenanigans, power plays, and cold cases that suddenly become very hot. Several episodes focus on current events, immigrants fleeing their countries and braving the rough Mediterranean waters in makeshift boats to arrive in Sicily.
Three of Montalbano’s team are front and center in most of the episodes. Cesare Bocci plays Inspector Domenico “Mimi” Augello, Montalbano’s deputy and close friend, whose penchant for attractive young women often gets him into trouble. Peppino Mazzotta plays detective Giuseppe Fazio, whose ability to anticipate Montalbano’s next request never fails to aggravate his boss. Comic relief is provided by Angelo Russo as Agatino Catarella who frequently crashes into Montalbano’s office and never seems to convey messages or names correctly. Despite these shortcomings, Catarella becomes the resident tech whiz after attending a seminar on computers. And in one episode, he saves Montalbano’s life.
Two members of Vigata’s forensic staff are critical to Montalbano’s work. Pathologist Marco Pasquano (a superb Marcello Perracchio who, sadly, died in 2017), spars with Montalbano, particularly when the detective takes him away from a poker game. But he’s always willing to share his cannoli, which he buys by the dozen, and his insights on the victims he examines. The forensic specialist, Jacomuzzi (Giovanni Guardino), spent time in the U.S. and has taken to eating burgers, something that earns him Montalbano’s distain. Rather than maintaining an adversarial relationship with the media, Montalbano calls on his good friend, Nicolò Zito (Roberto Nobile), a journalist at the local TV station, Rete Libera, when he needs help.
There’s no shortage of beautiful women. Mimi finally marries Beba (Carmelinda Gentile), although continues his womanizing. Montalbano’s Swedish friend, Ingrid (Isabell Sollman), whose social network stretches far and wide, often supplies him with intelligence. But his heart is planted in Genoa, where his longtime girlfriend, Livia Burlando, works and lives. Three different actors have played Livia, two Swedish actors, who were dubbed in Italian, and the most recent one, Sonia Bergamasco, an Italian actor who, we hope, will continue in the future. While Montalbano refers to Livia as his fiancé, wedding bells never seem to be in the future, despite a dream sequence. (See photo above.)
Most of the actors in the series will be new discoveries to American audiences, but in episode 34, “Un diario del ’43” (“A Diary from `43”), a familiar face pops up – Dominic Chianese, best known as Corrado “Junior” Soprano, on the HBO series The Sopranos. What a casting coup, having an actor from a U.S. series about the Mafia playing opposite an actor whose character confronts the criminal organization at its roots! Chianese, whose dialogue was mostly dubbed, nonetheless seems to be having the time of his life.
There’s another important character – Sicily itself. Montalbano’s home is on the beach with breathtaking views. When he’s not enjoying an espresso on his balcony, he’s swimming in the sea. Inland, the narrow streets and grand buildings inspire awe. The ubiquitous stone quarries have long supplied the material for the magnificent churches, monuments, and government buildings. But it’s when the cameras go inside, whether those interiors are palatial, with high ceilings, velvet drapes, and heavy furniture, or a farmhouse where chickens and goats have the run of the place, that we find ourselves riveted by the surroundings. All of this is lovingly captured by the cinematographers.
Then, of course, there’s the food, beautifully photographed and sure to whet one’s appetite. Breaking for lunch is a tradition in Italy, and Montalbano has a regular place to dine, usually Enzo’s, where he’s served his favorite fish dishes. Living alone and working long hours, Montalbano has his loyal housekeeper, Adelina (Mirella Petralia), leave his dinner which, if he’s lucky, he can finish before he’s called to another murder scene. (Montalbano met Adelina when he arrested her son, Pasquale, played by Fabio Costanzo, a habitual burglar whose expertise comes in handy when a case involves a robbery.)
While the supporting cast is excellent, Zingaretti is the production’s anchor. Born in Rome, Zingaretti studied at the prestigious National Academy of Dramatic Art Silvio D’Amico, and has an impressive theatre resume with films to follow. (Many of the supporting actors in the series come from theatrical companies in Sicily.) Stardom came to Zingaretti when he embraced his alter ego, Montalbano. And, fortunately for his fans, he plans to continue in the role for the near future.
After you’ve consumed 36 films of Inspector Montalbano, don’t miss the prequel – Young Montalbano, starring a very appealing Michele Riondino as the young police chief. In 12 episodes, many of the blanks in Montalbano’s background are filled in. Actors play younger versions of Mimi, Fazio, and Catarella, and the scenes of Sicily are just as gorgeous.
All 36 Detective Montalbano feature films are grouped into one giant season for MHz subscribers’ convenience. Click to watch.
Watch Inspector Montalbano and Young Montalbano on MHz Choice.
Top photo: Luca Zingaretti as Salvo Montalbano.
All photos courtesy of MHz Choice.