Literary forms like parable and allegory have to be a little vague and general to convey their simple messages. Films, on the other hand, work with realistic, specific details. The two do not necessarily conflict, but to combine them successfully, a filmmaker with a cautionary tale has to strike a balance in order not to overwhelm the didactic purpose of the allegory with everyday, extraneous detail or, on the other hand, to make the narrative so abstract that the results no longer convince as happening in the “real” world.

When a film like Elio Petri‘s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion straddles this gulf unsteadily with extravagant sophistication, the results confuse as often as they impress. “Il Dottore” (Gian Maria Volontè), a police official who has just been appointed head of the political crimes division, murders his mistress (Florinda Bolkan), deliberately leaving evidence that proves his guilt. He has no identity beyond his title and believes that because of the position that goes with it he is “above suspicion” and cannot be convicted. At first, he seems to be correct as the police gloss over evidence that points to him, but as they get closer to the truth, he panics and starts to lose it.

With its concluding epigraph from Kafka, the movie seems to suggest that officials are indeed above the law. But embroidered with realistic character quirks, it is not at all clear such paranoid cynicism is warranted. Il Dottore is a neurotic mess who did not consider when he committed the murder that his sense of guilt and inadequacy would be his undoing. While the film fleshes out this character with imaginative ruthlessness, in doing so, the original political point is blunted because it is hard to be awed by someone at war with himself. He is not really sure he is above the law, and thus, neither are we.

The murder scene sets the tone, caressing rather revolting violence with fetishistic details. Presented with immense visual flair, the result of the combination is an unpleasant, anxious tension that is never resolved. Quite the contrary, Petri and his technicians seem determined to keep the viewer in a kind of queasy suspense that can only end badly. The cinematography, design and editing throughout work in a swirling, disarmingly fluid and ostentatiously decorative manner that manages to both stun and disturb.

Disturbing because, even as the story eviscerates Il Dottore’s character, his velvet-lined corruption and disintegration are used as a photogenic turn-on. Furthermore, if it remains unclear if he gets away with his crime, Il Dottore’s ever more desperate frenzy and human weakness are involving enough to work against the didactic message. He is never sympathetic, but he is at least pathetic. As a result, Investigation is too smart for its own good. By decorating a political message with kinky, sumptuous excess, it muddies its point in a dazzling, brilliant, perverse jumble.