By Jay Kuehner
Not since Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009) has a cop movie been so sublimely uneventful as Alessandro Comodin’s The Adventures of Gigi the Law, a slack portrait of an affable officer in Friuli’s polizia locale. Pier Luigi Mecchia (a.k.a Gigi)—the director’s real-life uncle, effectively playing himself—performs his perfunctory patrol in the town of San Michele al Tagliamento, but Comodin’s film is more modern pastoral than police procedural. It’s typically incantatory, owing primarily to the protagonist’s Friulano accent, first heard in a nocturnal prologue wherein an off-duty Gigi defends his overgrown garden from the remonstrations of an unseen neighbour. Prolix to a fault, even comically absurd, the quarrelsome exchange is framed such as to create a man-nature dyad that looks, to all appearances, like someone arguing with the deep green fronds of a tree under an autumn moon.
The Adventures of Gigi the Law bids at levity in a tonal departure for Comodin, whose previous features Summer of Giacomo (2011) and Happy Times Will Come Soon (2016), while similarly languorous, offered a more sober gaze upon protagonists likewise embedded in nature, their fates ringed in near-mythological proportion. As earthy, realist fables that shifted organically between the conceptual registers of documentary and fiction, these films evinced a certain debt to the fashionable indeterminacy of auteurist cinema while ripening purely on the director’s own terms. With Gigi, Comodin has teased out a certain off-kilter comedy from the lassitude, yet a familiar undercurrent of lived anxiety remains. Like its eccentric lead, the film’s easygoing nature is afforded at some expense, a latent distress that commingles imperceptibly with the bucolic breeze.
From the shadowy intro, a cut to daylight, with Gigi at the wheel of his patrol car—the fixed position from which he’ll spend much of the film, both observing and being observed—offers a stark but unrevealing contrast that is nevertheless suggestive: that the landscape before him, essentially the world at large circumscribed by rural roadways, is a kind of unkempt garden, and the dishevelled and playfully mischievous Gigi is at home in it. As one seemingly sympathetic to, yet saddened by, the delinquencies of nature, what might he be on the lookout for, exactly? Not quite a stalker, nor a voyeur, Gigi proceeds with casual circumspection as a witness to the town’s goings-on, which are visibly lean—it’s mostly a scene without a crime. But the discovery of a young woman’s remains on the railway tracks prompts a speculative unease over the film’s, and by implication Gigi’s, otherwise blithe regard.
Comodin teases certain genre elements in Gigi, namely in the vague suspicion that Gigi and his ride-along partners, more buttoned-up than he, bear toward various townsfolk whom they deem “fishy.” But nothing much materializes, leaving Gigi to consider the lesser transgressions piquing his vigilance and the viewer to contemplate less hyperbolic yet no less mysterious uses of plot. Something is indeed amiss—or rather, missing—here, and Comodin hinges his film on that sense of vacancy as he proceeds, with the lightest of touches, to reorient our attention. There is a reported fire, but no smoke at the source. We see lone figures, simply out walking or on bike rides, to whom Gigi habitually bids a cordial “Buongiorno” (among them a student who’s failed his exams and has been scolded at home, and who invites Gigi to take his scooter for a humorously literal spin). A villager with 12 cats (note, all the females spayed) hangs his laundry out to dry. A neighbour, again, scolds Gigi for his wayward acacia tree. All of this anodyne sensibility is taken in a kind of listless, bemused stride. “Smell that chamomile!” exhorts Gigi to a colleague, car windows down as the fields scroll past, in what may be the film’s most sincere, modest, and yet insistent demand.
Amidst the general inertia, Gigi’s itinerant attention is piqued by the lilting voice of a new dispatcher, Paola (Ester Vergolini), beaming from his radio. “Paola to Gigi” becomes a recurring sonic set piece that Comodin channels to enchanting effect. Much of the film’s soft power is derived from offscreen implications and the sly deployment of negative space, which often serves to focus our attention on Gigi’s person—especially his mundanely handsome face with perpetually wandering eyes—in the habitual absence of reverse shots. This formal gambit acts as a reminder of the film’s grounding in documentary observation. As such, Gigi affords through documentary what Police, Adjective did through fiction, dispelling our expectations of crime stories and directing us instead to a character study. Here, Gigi, inhabiting his former role as a civic policeman, is both a kind of folk hero and a victim of an overly playful imagination. Implicit in Comodin’s sly mise en scène is the structural possibility that much of what transpires is unfolding inside Gigi’s head.
Gigi’s investigation shades into something more ambiguous, mournful, and occasionally surreal as the film goes on. He wanders the fatal railway tracks in a futile gesture toward understanding the spate of suicides there, an historically haunted place acting as a memorial to past and present generations (war veterans are tellingly invoked in passing). His inquisitive instinct seems, in the end, to be more existential in nature, perhaps a surrogate or substitute for self-reflection. Comodin stages a vespertine sequence of Gigi wandering his garden, provoked by the sight of his lone “suspect” Tomaso, whom he’s vaguely pursued since the early association with the track incident, among the overgrowth. It is unclear just whom, or what, Gigi is pursuing here, but this part-reverie, part-hallucination feels like Columbo by way of Apichatpong or Guiraudie. It also echoes the Jagdfieber of Comodin’s early eponymous short, the spell of hunting fever under which one effectively becomes the animal they are pursuing.
Thereafter, Gigi appears to be in the passenger seat on his daily rounds—a possible sign that he, and perhaps the narrative fantasy he’s been ensconced in, has ceded to the real. Comodin engineers a speculative relationship to Gigi, who’s at once a familiar uncle and an unknowable subject, whose “adventures” may be tantamount to projections, not least the dalliance occurring over the dispatch radio. Meanwhile, the routine of innocuous residential inspections and minor parking infractions is interrupted by the escort of a reluctant patient to a mental hospital, which finds Gigi revisiting a painful episode from his past. A candid park-bench exchange with Paola in which Gigi is, for once, turned away from the camera, reveals a man no longer flirting, but deeply vulnerable. It’s clear that Gigi, while not broken, has cracked at times. With his starched epaulets and slight paunch overhanging an official white leather belt, he cuts an amicable, clownish figure whose repartee, in hindsight, seems like a gentle salve to his sorrow.
Comodin has veiled a rather tender documentary portrait beneath the cloak of a policier, crafting a nostalgic ode to his own youth, with a chorus of insects panting in the palpable late summer heat. His film also allows another, albeit redemptive, tour of duty for his beloved uncle, who now enjoys leading-man status with his own rather liberal code of law enforcement in the absence of a “pheasant” of a boss. Bumming cigarettes from a couple of workers in the field, enjoying a singalong to an Italian hit by Julio Iglesias (yes, Gigi is both pirate and gentleman), straying mischievously into other precincts, Gigi is a man lost between generations and preserved in a bucolic amber. It’s a liminal zone to which Comodin repeatedly returns in his curiously carved-out cinema niche, where the laws of nature can’t be enforced, only abided, and those of desire duly surrendered to.
Alessandro Comodin, Belgium, France, Italy