If you’ve never seen Inspector Montalbano what have you been doing? For the uninitiated it’s an Italian television series produced and broadcast by RAI based on the detective novels of Andrea Camilleri. The main protagonist is Commissario Salvo Montalbano, and the stories are set in the imaginary town of Vigata in Sicily. It’s become something of a cult series on UK thanks to its prominent run in the Euro crime slot on Saturday nights on BBC4.
It’s Sicily but not as you know it. The Vigata streets have the dreamlike emptiness of a de Chirico painting, caused perhaps by a mixture of heavy-handed production management and out-of-season shooting.
If the producers are heavy-handed then the central character is played with a lightness of touch and a warmth you would not expect given the frequency of grizzly murders involved in the stories, and the sinister undercurrent of organized crime and political corruption.
There’s a lot of sunshine in Montalbano’s Sicily. It’s the sunshine, and Salvo’s personality, that make the whole atmosphere less threatening, less dark. Even when the inspector finds a dead horse on the beach in one episode – yes I’m sure you’re getting the reference – the colours are bright and he’s fresh from taking his daily Mediterranean dip.
Some of the lightness comes from the side characters too: there’s Mimì Augello, Montalbano’s deputy, and the classic Italian skirt chaser, Pasquano the coroner who always gives him grief and Catarella the heart of gold incompetent cop whose buffoonery and kind-hearted ineptitude is one of the false notes of the series.
Just like the classic Italian male Inspector Montalbano loves his food and it seems he’s not afraid to let this passion show on his waistline. Unlike the classic Italian male, however, he doesn’t chase women and yet beautiful women come to him and, although unmarried, quite often fends off advances and is always a total gentleman.
Montalbano’s appearance his drawn a lot of comment too of course. His buzz-cut head, well-cut Italian jackets with dark jeans has made him something of a sex symbol I believe despite his short stature and well-fed belly. Although our little detective fights crime, local bureaucrats and the Mafia there’s a little hint of Mussolini in his appearance but only on the surface.
Montalbano spends most of his time solving murders of course, but there is always a subtle undercurrent of the role of the policeman in society that may be related to the eternal presence of the Mafia and institutional crime. I believe this philosophical element is more overt in the Italian source novels but the Mafia while always there or thereabouts in this series they usually remain in the background and in the flesh are curiously unthreatening. So not at all like the other famous Italian TV series The Octopus set in Sicily of the 1980’s. If you’ve never seen Inspector Montalbano then do check it out. You may find its Italian flavoured style becomes an acquired taste.