In the first four minutes of Gianni Amelio's "Open Doors," a civil servant named Tommaso Scalia (Ennio Fantastichini) sharpens his bayonet, walks into the office from which he has just been fired and murders both the man who fired him and the one who replaced him. After that, he drives his wife to a secluded place, rapes her brutally and then, after urinating against a tree, calmly shoots the sobbing woman in the back of the head.
The next 104 minutes of this film, which is about Scalia's trial for these three murders, makes clear that he is an even worse human being than the opening told us: An ugly fascist with delusions of grandeur, he makes the Willie Hortons of the world look like Albert Schweitzer.
Yet after making Scalia so odious, "Open Doors" goes on to become a superb argument against capital punishment that eschews tendentiousness for dramatic truth. This film, which plays today and tomorrow at the Charles, is one of the best courtroom dramas you'll see this or any other year.
At the center of the film, which is based on an actual case in Mussolini's Italy, is the judge, Vito Di Francesco (Gian Maria Volonte). For a while it seems that Di Francesco is trying to prove that the murders were crimes of passion and thus not deserving of the death penalty. But by the time the audience is aware that there were no genuinely mitigating circumstances, it is also clear that Di Francesco has been using the law to get around another law -- mandating capital punishment -- which he regards as unjust.
At one point he says that "the death penalty has less to do with the course of justice than it does with those who govern us." Even if we may not agree with that point of view, "Open Doors" makes us understand it.
We see the people attending the trial turn into a mob as Di Francesco begins to unveil the corruption wrapped about the fascist bureaucracy of which Scalia and his two male victims were a part. The mob does not want to hear about that, of course -- it wants blood.
The clamoring to see criminals pay for their acts with their lives is directly related to -- may, in fact, be identical to -- the hysteria that makes fascism possible.
At least, that's the admittedly ideological argument that "Open Doors" makes. And it does so in terms that are subtle, dramatic and vivid.
Starring Gian Maria Volonte and
Directed by Gianni Amelio.
Released by Orion.