Fans of the long-running medical series 'House' will feel at home with the grumpy but brilliant investigator in this Italian police drama.
Kylie Walker

8 Apr 2021 - 10:49 AM  UPDATED 12 Apr 2021 - 12:49 PM

“Not an easy man to handle,” says government official Attilio De Prà, as he makes it clear to police detective Sandro Riva that he will have two challenges in his role with Genoa’s new missing persons task force: finding answers, and working with the new unit’s head, the abrupt but brilliant Elio Masantonio.

Masantonio (Alessandro Preziosi, seen on SBS previously as Filippo Brunelleschi in Medici: Masters of Florence) has come to back to Genoa after years elsewhere to work on a new task force, tucked away in an old museum, that investigates missing persons cases the police have been unable to solve; he may be difficult, but he has a way of solving problems, of getting into the heads and lives of the missing. Riva (Davide Iacopini) is a successful police officer with a more traditional way of doing things.

From Cattleya, the Italian production company responsible for Gomorrah, ZeroZeroZero, Petra and Romulus, Masantonio is a gentler offering, a police procedural with layers of mystery.  

There are the missing persons cases that De Prà (Bebo Storti) hands over to the pair in each episode. And then there’s the mystery of Masantonio himself: the events in his past; why he’s returned to Genoa, to an apartment that’s been shut up for years; and what exactly De Prà means when he tells Riva that Masantonio isn’t a policeman, that he went to the “other side”.

Masantonio often moves with a slight shuffle, as if still half-asleep, or drunk – or perhaps, as if his body just can’t be bothered doing what others think is normal. It’s fitting. He’s abrupt, skipping over the usual social niceties to ask exactly what he wants to know, or to stop people telling him what he doesn’t want to hear.

The Italian website Screentune likened the character of Elio Masantonio to the asocial doctor played so brilliantly by Hugh Laurie in the long-running drama series House, and they’re right: Preziosi, with his frown and stubble, looks a bit like Laurie’s Gregory House, and like House, he’s both abrupt and clever.

“Why’d you treat them like that?” Riva asks, after the pair meet with the parents of a missing girl in the first episode, and Masantonio is rude to them both, then walks out of the room.

“Because it only takes a second and the image that the relatives have of the missing person becomes yours as well…They could know the truth or not know anything. Have a false belief or not want to tell you. Or have invented their own completely.”

It turns out that sometimes, he actually is half-asleep. He’s an insomniac – which explains the constant parade of espresso he downs.

But behind that sleepy façade and surly manner lies a mind that sees things others don’t. As each episode unfolds, his thinking is shaped by occasional imagined – but realistic – conversations with the missing, who sometimes tell him harsh things about himself, too; unsurprising, perhaps, given these are figments of his mind and it’s clear he’s done some things he’s not proud of. These conversations not only help us understand how Masantonio figures out what’s happened, they also serve to make the missing real to us, the viewers, too.

Among them, there’s Chiara, a volunteer at a centre for abused women, who disappeared the same day as the centre’s cashbox; Thiago, a nine-year-old boy from the Peruvian community in Genoa; Biago, a brilliant but paranoid scientist; and Don Giulio, a parish priest loved by some and hated by others. And as Masantonio and Riva unravel their mysteries, we gradually learn more about the investigators, too.   

Masantonio may be grumpy with his steadfast partner and the people they interview, but you’ll find yourself liking him, and hoping he can find a way past the emotional hurdles and people from the past he’s facing now he’s back in Genoa. And quiet, competent Riva has a family situation that makes his life challenging too.

Sometimes, it’s refreshing to read a book or watch a movie or dive into a show where you don’t get whiplash trying to follow inexplicable developments in the plot; where a clue really is a clue (even if it takes a bit of quirk to see it as a clue); where death is treated gently, rather than splashed across the screen; where a mystery unfolds, and in the end, you find out what happened.

And yet, this is far from boring: Masantonio’s gruff personality and conversations with the missing, the unfolding of his own story, Riva’s steadfast competence, the quirkiness of the pair’s museum office, which looks more like a storeroom for several decades of discards than a site for serious investigation, the visual reminders that the investigations are happening in the grand port city of Genoa, all add up to a police procedural that keeps things interesting from start to finish.

And if you’ve ever been to Italy and bought fantastic focaccia from a local bakery, seeing Masantonio’s joy and relief at eating a simple square of bread might serve as a reminder not only of good times, but how simple things can sometimes mean so much more. 

In its Australian premiere, all 10 episodes of Masantonio are available now at SBS On Demand.

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