Italian auteur Elio Petri’s loosely defined Trilogy of Neuroses, a kind of socio-politically charged series of scathingly black tragicomedies channeling the cultural anxieties and volatility of Italy’s “years of lead”, began with the critically revered 1970 power corruption film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (available via Criterion Collection) before winning the Cannes Grand Prix by segueing into the embittered labor relations piece The Working Class Goes to Heaven in 1972. Sadly, the closing chapter in the director’s still socially relevant and incendiary trilogy, Property is No Longer a Theft, didn’t receive the same warm critical and commercial reception of his first two Neuroses films and is only now being reappraised in a newly remastered special edition blu ray released by Arrow Video.
Taking on class division separated by the socioeconomic ladder of capitalism, the film concerns a young bank clerk named Total (Flavio Bucci from Suspiria) who after being denied a bank loan by his employer quits his job before waging a personal game of war on the institution’s wealthiest customer, a thoroughly sleazy and unscrupulous local butcher (Ugo Tognazzi from La Grande Bouffe). Rather than simply steal cold hard cash, Total stalks and systematically steals prized personal possessions one by one from the butcher, including but not limited to his paid and buxom mistress Anita (Daria Nicolodi) whose loyalties only lie with the man with the biggest bank account.
Aided by an atonal percussive score by Ennio Morricone and fine performances by Tognazzi and Bucci, Property is No Longer a Theft is the darkly comic version of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low if you will. Stripping the tale of thriller elements, the film instead opts for a blistering, often acidly funny critique of the sharp disparity between the petty thieves scratching around in the dirt looking for a nickel while the wealthy rolling around in money have more than they know how to spend it. Often breaking the fourth wall with Brechtian techniques, the film’s numerous characters are each given equal time hard lit against a black backdrop to speak directly into the camera, airing out their lamentations at the vagaries of their sad sorry lot in life. Sympathy for these characters are invited, if only we could stop smirking at them for a few minutes.
What’s most revealing about Property is No Longer a Theft is the underlying irony beneath our antihero Total’s moral compass. Though he might be a petty thief robbing from the rich, patting himself on the back along the way as a kind of Italian Prince of Thieves, over the course of the picture the nameless butcher and Total gradually more or less are driven by the same thirst for wealth by any unsavory means necessary. It’s a rare feat that manages to instill both laughter and deeply seated anger within the viewer as the opposite ends of the social spectrum seem forever locked in mortal combat out of the same like-minded materialism.
In an era where the well to do seem to have all the keys and walk through the raindrops, Elio Petri’s closing chapter to the Trilogy of Neuroses not only functions as a still relevant caustic cautionary tale of the evils of capitalism which has lost none of it's bite, it might also be the funniest rebuke of the upper class since Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie!
- Andrew Kotwicki