A very brave film made all the more powerful by being true
Movies reviewI mourn the time when films were films and not the merchandising vehicles that they have become. A time when cinema meant challenge and not advertising. Perhaps the greatest time for cinema was the seventies. The wild abandonment of the sixties meant that a newer breed of film-maker came along, one that pushes boundaries. Some of the most unique and uncompromising cinema was to come from this era. When a director could almost put anything on the screen; it was harsh and raw, brutal and vicious and for a few short years the cinema had real heart. Of course all good things must pass and it took the censors scissors to end this. Now some forty plus years later our screens are filled with as much brutality, as much viciousness, but that raw edge has been lost in favour of money making. Will we ever see its like again?
From this period of cinematic change there came forth a number of hugely talented and influential actors, one of which was Al Pacino. After the urban horror and stark portrayal of a heroin addiction in The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Coppola cast him, against the wishes of the Paramount Executives, in The Godfather (1972) - another case of a director leading the way. Although that film was perceived as a Coppola/Brando vehicle such was Pacino’s talent that it lead directly to him being cast, this time with Paramount’s blessing, in Serpico (1973). In it he plays Frank Serpico, a real person, and the true story of how, as a policeman, he faced up to the corruption that surround him in the New York Police Department. He brings the intensity of the Godfather and the grittiness of Needle Park to create the character that rightly put him on the top of his game; quite simply this film made him a star.
The film opens with Frank, bloodied from being shot in the face, on his way to hospital. Once there, some quick cutting returns us to the young Frank, fresh from the academy being congratulated for his success. He is ambitious and hungry, sees things his own way and is not afraid to take the risks needed to make the arrest. However, all is not good, immediately he is subject to bribery, a free meal in response to overlooking some parking offenses; the first of many. But throughout his career he simply refuses to take any bribe money; he suffers ridicule and harassment from his peers, both verbal and physical. All the while he tries to open up this corruption to scrutiny, but each time is thwarted by the system. The harder he tries, the more he puts his life on the line with his fellow officers who see him as a traitor. The pressure affects every part of his life; he is unable to hold onto a stable relationship, with either friends or lovers. With nowhere to turn, except the press, Frank finally brings the spotlight on the police, many of whom are more criminal than the criminals they are employed to catch. But it cost him dear, for the film comes full circle to his shooting. And, as is the way of things, it takes this act of violence to finally get the authorities to acknowledge that the corruption extends higher into the upper echelons of the police than previously was realised.
His fresh faced ideology is gradually worn down throughout the picture to be replaced with anger, resignation and finally despair
Made by Sidney Lumet, a director famous for getting the best performances out of his actors, and he certainly manages that with Pacino. His fresh faced ideology at the beginning of the film is gradually worn down throughout the picture to be replaced with anger, resignation and finally despair; all the more remarkable considering that the film was essentially shot in reverse with Pacino all hairy first to the clean shaven rookie last. The film is about corruption, and Lumet films the city with that in mind; it is dirty, used, the streets are paved with filth and the offices are plagued with grime. There is a slow and deliberate pace, compared to modern cinema some may suggest boring, but that is to miss the point - it gives the audience time to adjust along with Frank. His decent into a corrupt world took time, and following his journey as he sinks further and further in is difficult to watch. Lument, at one stage, tries to make Frank the villain for not accepting the bribes, and we, as the audience, urge him to, just to give the poor man some piece.
It is a very brave film made all the more powerful by being true. It won numerous awards upon its release and rightly so, for there is much to admire in the film. It hasn’t, unfortunately, aged so well though, fashion, although authentic is rather grim, and the filmic style makes for a rather difficult watch, especially if one is brought up with the quick cutting of today’s cinema. But give it the time it deserves and Serpico is well worth the wait, harking back, as it does, to a time when films really had something to say and were not afraid to say it.
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