Early 1990s Italy answered in part to the Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”) bribery and embezzlement probe that ultimately destroyed both the country’s Christian Democratic and Socialist parties. At the time, political moviemaking had pulse. Director Marco Risi (son of Dino Risi) did his crusading part by fictionalizing journalist Andrea Purgatori’s efforts to get to the truth behind the infamous Ustica crash.
In June 1980, a DC-9 headed from Bologna to Palermo disintegrated inexplicably over the Sicilian island of Ustica. Writing in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, Purgatori alleged that errant NATO fire had brought down the plane. Air force and political officials stonewalled demands to make air controller tapes of the plane’s disappearance a matter of public record.
In Risi’s fictionalized behind-the-headlines story, Purgatori is a journalist named Rocco Ferrante (Corso Salani), who works for years to get to the heart of the matter but time and again is denied information and answers. He turns obsessed and near-paranoid, with fellow journalists questioning his stability. His reporting ultimately leads to a criminal hearing that suggests a cover-up but lacks the details to prove it. At the end, in driving rain, Ferrante dresses down an Italian air force general he’s convinced has lied under oath to magistrates.
The narrative is no-frills chilling and very Italian, particularly since the mystery remains unsolved three decades later. “The rubber wall” of the film’s title is the one around Italian state secrets, covered by an official code of silence in the way Mafia crimes are protected by so-called omertà. Though four Italian air force generals were ultimately charged with falsifying documents, perjury and abuse of office, two were acquitted and the other two never went to trial.
Italian filmmakers, once emboldened, no longer bother with these kind of biopics, resigned instead to the country’s great unknowns.