If you have in the recent past, been watching streamed web series identified with descriptors such as ‘noir’, ‘procedural drama’, ‘slow-burn’, ‘gritty’ or similar other freely circulating catchwords, you would definitely have come across the Netflix series, The Trial (Italian name Il Processo), directed by Stefano Lodovichi. Released a fortnight ago on the network, The Trial has all the major tropes associated with crime fiction TV shows popular in Europe since the highly successful Danish series The Killing (2008-2012). It has a headstrong female investigator in a dysfunctional relationship; a brutal, senseless murder in a small town; a web of sub-plots; a touch of eroticism; but most importantly an exotic and seductive location likely to entice transnational viewers. The Trial, however, is not just a successful rehashing of a TV formula, but a slightly unusual derivative of the genre of urban noir binge-watched by audiences across the world. Urban noir refers to tales of crime, deceit, and passion, that reflect the dark and negative sides of cities. Drawing from this genre, The Trial interweaves a soapy, melodramatic narrative with a ‘court-room drama’ on one hand, and a dark, brooding murder mystery on the other. The blend has ensured that the series attracts viewers with diverse expectations. The writers have taken a successful formula and have bent it out of shape. The result is a slightly awkward, uneven, but a riveting series that manages to hold the viewer’s attention.
The Trial is shot on a real location in the beautiful city of Mantua (Mantova in Italian) in the Lombardy region in Northern Italy. Lombardy, in the recent past, has borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic and has seen a staggering number of infections and deaths. It is difficult to ignore this real tragedy while watching this fictional narrative. Mantua, often described as La Bella Addormentata (The Sleeping Beauty), is one of those Italian cities which has hardly changed over the past 600 years. Art enthusiasts will remember the Gonzaga family, the rulers of Mantua, who patronised artists such as the renaissance stalwarts Leon Battista Alberti and Andrea Mantegna. The medieval city, surrounded by three man-made lakes, form a spectacular backdrop for this series, with much of the action taking place in the famous heritage structure called Palazzo Te – a 16th-century palace built by the Federico Gonzaga. In a way, it is ironic that a tale of murder and deceit is set in the backdrop of a picturesque medieval city, but then, there are interesting precedents such as the quirky and violent British noir, In Bruges (2008), which increased the popularity of that spectacular Belgian town among tourists.
The central character in The Trial is the successful, but over-worked young prosecutor, Elena Guerra (Vittoria Puccini). Elena finds herself in the middle of an agonizing crisis when she discovers the real identity of a teenage murder victim called Angelica Pedroni. Elena realises that Angelica, an adopted child of a local couple, is her biological daughter. As a teenage mother herself, Elena had given up the child for adoption years ago and since then had borne the psychological scar of her tragic past. Overcome with guilt for having failed her own blood and indirectly causing her death, Elena decides to sacrifice her fragile marriage to plunge headlong into the investigation on Angelica’s death. Her plan to join her husband in New York is put on hold and it aggravates the marital discord. In the meantime, shared grief brings Elena close to her ex-boyfriend, the biological father of her deceased daughter, jeopardising a possible reconciliation with her husband. Meanwhile, the evidence collected by the police leads her to a suspect called Linda Monaco (Camilla Filippi) – the scion of a wealthy Mantua business family. Ignoring the obvious conflict of interest and hiding her relationship with the victim, Elena, in her capacity as the state prosecutor, starts arguing the case against the accused.
Running parallel to Elena’s narrative is the story of her rival lawyer, Ruggero Barone (Francesco Scianna), an ambitious young lawyer who is appointed by the senior Monaco to defend his daughter. While Elena, driven by maternal guilt and the urge to punish the killers, bends the law, Barone can go to any extent to browbeat his opponent. Reckless, but emotionally vulnerable, Ruggero is portrayed as Elena’s alter-ego and occupies an important position in the narrative. These characters and situations abound in Euro-American pulp-fiction. It will be unfair, however, to critique The Trial based entirely on its pulpy, non-linear narrative and its over-the-top ingredients. It is through the interstices of these familiar tropes that a densely atmospheric tale of crime, corruption, lust and power slowly emerges. More than the plot itself, it is the slow revelation of the malevolence of the self-serving and corrupt urban elite, which adds a special dimension to the series. The depiction of Italian urban high life has a long legacy ranging from La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life – Federico Fellini, 1960) to La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino, 2013). The Trial, in its attempt to develop a credible setting for its noir theme, taps into this world of decadence, which is peopled by aristocrats, playboys, escorts, politicians, and criminals.
In a hyper-competitive world of streamed dramas, it is not the theme alone, but the visual appeal which distinguishes a series from similar screen narratives. In The Trial repetitive, slow, tracking shots, wide angle shots capturing the important action against the majestic classical architecture, an unhurried way in which the images are edited add to the dark, brooding nature of the narrative. Gliding aerial shots over cathedrals, bridges, bell-towers and renaissance era buildings help ground the narrative in the city’s medieval aura. These ‘drone shots’ are used while transitioning from one scene to another and they lend a visual relief from conventional indoor scenes as a large part of the narrative unfolds in the courtroom. The courtroom scenes, too, are filmed with a moving camera, a technique which lends a dramatic urgency to otherwise static and verbose scenes. While devoid of digital frills, which have become common in contemporary television, The Trial adheres to the basics – a compelling plot, competent on-screen performances and spectacular locations. Despite its rough edges, viewers across the world have received it well. According to a recent news story – the producers are planning a second season, if not in a conventional form, but as a ‘spin-off’. Whether this new season will gain popular approval and do as well as the first instalment is another matter.
Italian, Thriller, Drama, Color