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Prequel Problems: Young Montalbano

By Tom Anderson

Luca Zingaretti, who portrayed Inspector Salvo Montalbano. This picture was taken by Filippo Caranti and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

In a previous article in this series, I discussed the Inspector Morse franchise; how it developed from a series of novels written by Colin Dexter from 1975 onwards to an iconic TV series in 1987 starring John Thaw in the title role, and eventually spawning a prequel series in 2012 starring Shawn Evans as his younger counterpart. While the detective drama is a popular enough format that it is easy to make facile comparisons, I do feel that there are parallels to be drawn between Morse and an equally iconic franchise from Italy – Inspector Montalbano.

Properly Il commissario Montalbano in the original Italian (which confusingly has to translate ‘commissario’ to ‘inspector’ but ‘questore’ to ‘commissioner’ to fit English norms!), this franchise has a number of points of comparison with Morse. It began as a series of detective novels (in this case by the author Andrea Camilleri, beginning with The Shape of Water in 1994) and enjoyed significant success in that form, but was nonetheless eclipsed by the even greater popularity of a TV adaptation from 1999 onwards starring Luca Zingaretti from 1999 onwards. Like Morse, the TV version of Salvo Montalbano has a leisurely two hours in which to explore the complexities of a case, with few episodes per series (and fewer as it went on). Whereas Morse’s character is fleshed out by his love of crosswords and classical music, Montalbano’s chief interest outside his job is being a gourmet; in one story he spends more time agonising about the prospect of his favourite restaurant closing down than about the case he’s investigating. In both cases, the iconic setting is as much a ‘character’ as the protagonist, whether it be grey Oxford’s dreaming spires or the sunny Sicilian seaside town of Vigàta. (Unlike Oxford, Vigàta is fictional, but is based on Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle – by 2003, tourism there inspired by the series was so popular that it actually added ‘Vigàta’ to its official name!)

Like Morse, there were also some changes between the literary original and the screen product. I have not read many of the original Montalbano stories, and those in English translation, so I am not qualified to comment on this in detail. Generally the TV adaptations follow the original stories quite faithfully, but Camilleri wrote many short stories incompatible with a 2-hour TV show, so sometimes several of these are stitched together to make a longer plot. How successful this is varies, with some naturally fitting as subplots while others are more perceptibly cut-and-shunted together. This leads me to an important illustration in not making assumptions. The Montalbano TV show is made by Italian state broadcaster RAI in collaboration with Sweden’s Sveriges Television (SVT). A recurring character in the series Ingrid Sjöström, a sexy, amoral Swedish blonde who loves (and is capable at) driving fast cars, is always willing to help Montalbano out with a case, but is also always ready to try to get into his pants despite her existing marriage and his relationship. I don’t think it was an unreasonable assumption on my part that this character must surely have been added to the TV show to get buy-in from SVT, but no – she appeared as early as the first Montalbano book, initially as a suspect in its central case. The obvious answer is not always correct!

One of the more interesting parallels between Morse and Montalbano is that both regularly lock horns with a pathologist frenemy, who complains they are always trying to get a precise time of death of this week’s corpse out of him and that this is impossible, and enjoys the fact that Morse or Montalbano themselves are squeamish about looking at the corpse. I suppose this is a natural enough plot device in a detective drama, but it still amuses me just how close the parallel is and how similar their conversations go. With Morse this character is Max DeBryn (as discussed in my previous article) whereas with Montalbano it is Marco Pasquano, an elderly man with an enthusiasm for cream buns. Like Max, Dr Pasquano is also a fan favourite character, known for his catchphrase that Montalbano is trying to ‘break his balls’ by pestering him for details about time of death.

All this is not to say the series are interchangeable, of course. The original Morse series makes much of the Holmes-Watson duumvirate relationship between Morse and Lewis, whereas Montalbano’s police station includes a cast of many colourful sidekicks and rivals rather than focusing on a single partner. These include his friendly rival Inspector Domenico "Mimì" Augello, his hypercompetent assistant Giuseppe Fazio, the trigger-happy and car-crashing Galluzzo, and first and foremost the erratic constable Agatino Catarella, a classic comic archetype and fan favourite character who might have come from the pages of the Italian Comedy. Though Catarella’s incompetence extends to the running jokes of him always introducing witnesses by a comedically wrong name and always slamming the door by accident every time he enters, in an early episode of the TV show we discover that he is also the only one in the station who knows how to use a computer. This idiot savant ability, as well as the fact that children love him and will open up to him, contributes repeatedly to cases being solved. There are also other memorable recurring characters outside the police station. For example, Montalbano’s childhood friend Nicolò Zito, a journalist who works for the fictional local TV station Rete Libera, helps him with several cases in releasing or suppressing information to lure the villain into a trap. His old school headteacher, now retired, also appears in several episodes and shares stories of Montalbano’s youthful escapades.

There are other differences. Both protagonists have an iconic car, but in contrast to Morse’s stately Jaguar, Montalbano drives a battered, comically outdated Fiat Tipo. While corruption does sometimes feature in Morse stories, Montalbano’s political statements of this type are more explicit, something Camilleri wanted to focus on as he felt older detective stories were often divorced from this aspect of a real-world setting. Montalbano also has a (sort of) stable relationship with his long-suffering on-again off-again Genoese girlfriend Livia, with tensions over the fact he loves Sicily and never wants to leave it, in contrast to Morse’s enduring bachelordom despite his best efforts. Livia’s intermittent appearances in the TV series goes hand in hand with her being played by multiple actresses over the years.

Nonetheless, there is also another parallel between Morse and Montalbano, and it is this one which is of interest to this series. In the very same year that the pilot special of Endeavour was made, 2012, a prequel spinoff was made for Montalbano too: titled Il giovane Montalbano in Italian, this is rendered into English as either The Young Montalbano or just Young Montalbano. In my previous article, I described what I see as the pros and cons of Endeavour, and ended up deciding it was generally a good drama in its own right, but not always the best-conceived prequel. Given the other parallels I have drawn between Morse and Montalbano, it therefore seems natural to compare the two and ask how Young Montalbano holds up against Endeavour in conceit and execution. (Well it seems natural to me – as quoted on the back of my DVDs, Emily Jupp of The Independent on Sunday thought it made more sense to say the young Montalbano could give Sherlock a run for his money; evidently a filing error led her to the mistaken impression that that qualifies as a detective drama of any kind).

Before we make a comparison, let’s begin by noting what is different between the core conceits of the two prequels. The timescale of Montalbano is more time compressed, as his character is younger than Morse in the ‘present day’ and there is therefore somewhat less scope to dwell on how culture and society have changed; Young Montalbano is set in the early 1990s rather than the 1960s of Endeavour. The shorter timescale is also kinder for trying to make links between past and present; it was a very ‘mugging at the camera do you get it’ moment to have a Jaguar feature in the original Endeavour pilot, whereas it feels more natural to have the unspoken joke that the young Montalbano is driving the exact same Fiat Tipo he does now, but in the early 90s it’s brand new and not missing hubcaps.

The difference in timescale ultimately gets to the heart of what I felt the biggest problem with Endeavour to be; because it’s initially set over 20 years before the original, and its creators always live with the uncertainty of whether there’ll be another series, they cannot effectively tell the story of ‘how we got here’ in a realistically paced way. There are a lot of diversionary sidesteps and two steps forward, one step back movements in Endeavour that make it feel indecisive, such as when and how to depict the origins of Morse’s alcoholism. Young Montalbano is very different. The first episode, Montalbano’s First Case (based on a pre-existing short story by Camilleri) features the young Salvo moving from his previous position to take up his role in Vigàta and meeting the colleagues who will define the series ever afterwards. The first episode takes pains to emphasise differences by showing him with a different girlfriend, but he breaks up with her only a few episodes in and meets Livia for the first time not long afterwards.

You should be able to see where this is going. Based on this description, it seems clear that Young Montalbano is primarily a ‘more adventures with our heroes, conveniently played by younger actors’ prequel. Yet despite this apparent rush to create the status quo we’re all familiar with but with a different cast, the series does take a little time to dwell on ‘how we got here’ and character development; it may not be unreasonable to make a comparison to the excellent X-Men First Class. In fact, if your assumption was that the goal was to ‘continue’ the series with younger actors, that is another false impression – they only made two series of Young Montalbano while the original series has continued. Let’s now discuss some of these developments; to do so, we first need to talk about the cast.

Michele Riondino at Giffoni Film Festival in 2010. Note the flowing locks. Photo taken by Rossella Vetrano and shared under the CC BY 2.0 licence.

The younger Salvo Montalbano is played by Michele Riondino. They pull the oldest prequel trick in the book by having him played by an actor with a full rambunctious head of hair, whereas present-day Montalbano, as played by Zingaretti, is bald. Other than this, however, Riondino pulls off an excellent performance that renders him much more believable as a young Montalbano than Shaun Evans is as a young Morse. One advantage Montalbano has is that Camilleri always established him as compassionate and progressive (if cynical) from the beginning – in the first episode of the original series he saves and almost adopts a young refugee boy – so there are none of the problems I discussed in my article on Endeavour with Evans’ Morse having anachronistic attitudes compared to the crustier values of Thaw’s Morse.

The rest of the cast is generally also quite believable, with the usual and inevitable minor issues (Mimì Augello seems to have visibly aged a lot more in a decade than the younger Giuseppe Fazio has). Angelo Russo left big shoes to fill in playing the role of Catarella, but Fabrizio Pizzuto does an adequate, if inevitably less iconic, job. Ironically, probably the least believable ‘younger character’ actor in Young Montalbano is Giuseppe Santostefano as Dr Pasquane (which is more due to visual differences between the actors than his performance) when I previously praised James Bradshaw’s Max DeBryn as the most believable such case in Endeavour! Considering the larger cast of characters than Morse’s that Young Montalbano has to create youthful counterparts job, the casting is masterful.

This casting discussion leads me to focus on how Young Montalbano is not solely a ‘more adventures with our heroes, please do not look at the calendar’ type of prequel. When Montalbano takes up his role in Vigàta, his deputy is Carmine Fazio (Andrea Tidona), a veteran police officer experienced with the area and who partly acts as a mentor and guide to the inspector. This Fazio is the father of Giuseppe Fazio, who joins the police as a new recruit over the course of the series. The older Fazio is forced to retire from the force due to health problems as part of a planned story arc. This neatly establishes why Giuseppe is so hypercompetent in the chronologically later series (he learned from his father from the start) and shows Montalbano learning on the job, yet the timescale of the overlap is sufficiently short that it avoids the Endeavour problems I previously discussed with Macnutt and Thursday as ambiguously established mentors. It feels more believable that this relationship with Fazio’s father doesn’t have to have been explicitly referenced in the chronologically later series.

There is a similar setup in the first episode where Montalbano meets Augello, and the two initially butt heads as serious rivals before eventually respecting one another and working together. Though taking place over a short timescale, it feels realistic and believable, especially as their rivalry never wholly goes away in the chronologically later series. (The original series features a memorable plot line of Montalbano playing matchmaker and getting the lecherous Augello a steady wife purely to stop him moving away from Vigàta!)

I find this focus on showing where character relationships come from to be a better use of prequel time and effort than dwelling too much on theme-park versions of the period it’s set in. Of course this implied sniping at Endeavour is quite unfair of me, because the nature of the Morse series means there are far fewer character relationships that Endeavour could explore – Morse can’t meet Lewis in the past and all that’s left are his fairly distant relationships with Max and Strange. Further, Colin Dexter never explicitly wrote ‘how it all began’ stories, whereas Andrea Camilleri did. To conclude that I certainly consider Young Montalbano to be an inherently better prequel than Endeavour, as you can probably guess, would be accurate; but to do regardless of context would not be valid. Young Montalbano enjoys these considerable and inherent advantages over Endeavour before the first scene was ever written or filmed. (For the record, judged purely as dramas I would say they are roughly equal).

Nonetheless, I feel Young Montalbano is still a very well executed prequel even accounting for these advantages. I have already mentioned the excellent casting and performances. The series does not ignore the fact that it’s set in the past, but explores it relatively subtly – reminding us Italy is using lire not euros, with boxy CRT televisions and contemporary cars. More importantly, it draws upon the contemporary corruption scandals with the collapse of the Christian Democracy ruling party and the rise of men like Silvio Berlusconi. Whereas the original series generally depicts Vigàta’s two (fictional) warring Mafia families, the Cuffaros and Sinagras, as a fading force who mostly keep to a peace agreement, the prequel shows them as more contemporary and dangerous.

One can tell that a labour of love has been put into making this series work as a prequel, not just as a good drama in its own right. One example sticks out to me: there would be a severe temptation to make use of the plot point that Catarella is good with computers, especially as computers becoming more important throughout the 1990s is occasionally visible in the stories. However, this was established as a new thing in the early episodes of the original series, so would be an anachronism. Though clearly indeed tempted and making the occasional wink to the viewer about it, the creators of the prequel avoid contradicting continuity and don’t invoke Catarella’s IT skills anachronistically. This is the sort of thing that I grew up as expecting as natural from writers with a good sense of consistency and continuity (like Colin Dann, see my article on The Animals of Farthing Wood) but we often find ourselves bereft of in the real world of film and TV.

About the only criticism I would make of Young Montalbano is it feels there is a missed opportunity. Early episodes of the original series (and the stories they are based on) feature Montalbano’s relationship with the character Gegè Gullotta, a boyhood friend of his at school who then entered organised crime. The writing reminds us of the thin line between crime and the law, especially in Sicily (and Montalbano has been known to bend the law in a quest for justice amid corruption) – there are hints that Montalbano could also have gone the other way if things had been different. Unfortunately, Gullotta is killed relatively early into the original series, ending this as a future plot device. I was hoping he’d be featured in the prequel as it seemed a great opportunity to explore that background further, but this didn’t happen. Ultimately this may just be due to the fact that they were adapting Camilleri stories that hadn’t necessarily been set before Gullotta’s death, so they didn’t feature him.

Other than this minor complaint, I would highly recommend both Inspector Montalbano and its spinoff prequel, both as dramas in their own right and as a model of how to create a prequel. It is a measure of their quality that, despite the traditional resistance of Anglophone audiences to subtitles, subtitled versions of both series proved a sleeper hit on BBC4 in the UK – which fortuitously means that, unlike Inspector Morse, these 2-hour dramas are not further lengthened by advert breaks!

More Prequel Problems articles are on their way.



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