With COVID-19 infection rates soaring—amidst growing racial, political and cultural divides, and a plummeting U.S. economy—it’s natural to seek out escapist distractions. After spending far too many hours cooking and baking (and rapidly approaching my Quarantine-15), I’ve moved my escape quarters from the kitchen to the family room and there, have found another guilty pleasure.
Detective Montalbano: The book brought to the screen
The Italian TV series, Detective Montalbano, is the perfect pandemic antidote for anyone who loves Italy and isn’t able to travel there right now. The series includes 36 engaging episodes, each about two hours long (the length of full-feature movies), that transport viewers to Sicily. The episodes are in Italian, interspersed with Sicilian dialect, and sub-titled in English.
Filmed over a period of more than 20 years; the first episode of the popular series appeared on one of the Italian state-owned television stations (RAI) in 1999. While Italians had to patiently await successive episodes over two decades (they were released every two years with the last two released in 2020), they are all available for streaming (and binging) now in more than 65 countries.
The stories are based on the mystery series by revered Italian director/author/storyteller, Andrea Camilleri, who was born in Porto Empedode—a coastal town in the Sicilian province of Agrigento (once called Girgenti).
Although he had published other widely acclaimed novels, it wasn’t until the prolific author was in his 70s that he began writing the detective series brought to the screen as Il Commissario Montalbano that brought him international fame.
In fact, Camilleri’s late-life work became so popular that at one point his hometown was officially renamed Porto Empedocle Vigàta, adding the fictional name (Vigàta) from the series (although later rescinded).
The story, characters and setting
Each episode of Detective Montalbano takes place in Vigàta, a hill town in southern Italy (and the nearby countryside) where the detective is in charge of the police station. This area in southeast Sicily is incredibly scenic with sweeping beaches, huge cliffs towering above the Mediterranean Sea, and stunning Baroque architecture. You might say that throughout the series, the beauty of Sicily is the real star.
The episodes often begin with the handsome detective, Salvo Montalbano (played by Luca Zingaretti), swimming back home in the blue waters outside his villa—just in time to receive an early morning phone call from the station that advises him of a new murder or disappearance in the town.
The cases often revolve around themes of lust and larceny among locals, sometimes involving the Mafia. Luca is a highly principled professional and a magnet for all the female characters in the stories (viewers, too). In real life, the charismatic Zingaretti happens to be one of the most in-demand actors in Italy.
Alberto Sironi, director of the TV series (who died in August 2019) explained: “Montalbano has a series of defects and qualities typical of all Italians: he is an individualist anarchist who reasons with his head, he likes to eat well, he likes beautiful women.”
The detective’s team includes Domenico ‘Mimì’ Augello, Montalbano’s deputy who is a womanizer; Giuseppe Fazio, a young detective who is Montalbano’s right-hand man, and two other police officers, Galluzzo and the comic Agatino Catarella. They all work closely with a forensic pathologist, Dr. Marco Pasquano, and a local TV journalist, Nicolò Zito, to investigate the leads that will ultimately allow them to solve the crime. Montalbano’s long-distance girlfriend, Livia, often pops down to Sicily from her home near Genoa, and a loyal housekeeper and cook, Adelina, takes care of Il Commissario in her absence.
These multi-layered stories offer strange and unexpected digressions from the primary plots that keep viewers guessing until the end. To be honest, some of the mysteries are so complex that they are hard to follow. But it is easy to get enthralled by the scenery, set design and ambiance as well as the authenticity of the characters played by the wonderful ensemble cast. The shows are heavily infused throughout with humor so no matter how sad or upsetting an event or story, there are ample opportunities to laugh along with (or at) the characters.
Each case includes a bevy of new, one-of-a-kind characters that could only be found in southern Italy. The shows also introduce viewers to regional foods, clothes and customs: Montalbano is a gourmand who enjoys authentic Sicilian cuisine with great gusto so he’s often found sitting at his favorite restaurant or eating on his patio beside the sea.
Meet some of the characters
To cast these seasoned actors, who are exceptionally talented and believable, the director scouted many regional theaters in southern Italy. Only the main ensemble cast comes from other parts of the country. Camilleri has said that the people, stories and setting are based on memories of his youth.
As a tribute to the beloved Sicilian writer, on July 17th, 2020, one year after his death at the age of 93, Conversazione su Tiresia, a theatrical show written and interpreted by him will be screened in national theaters across Italy.
In an article in The Guardian, novelist Paul Bailey writes: “The books begin in the age of the lira, but the euro is the accepted currency in the most recent titles. Cellphones are regularly employed. Yet, for all these nods to modernity, the Montalbano mysteries have a timeless feel about them. They are the books of a wise old man who has lived a lot, eaten well and versed himself in the best Italian and foreign literature.”
In the U.S., the Detective Montalbano series is available exclusively on MHz Choice, which is available through Amazon Prime (it requires paying an additional $7.99 a month). There’s usually a free trial but once you start the series, you’ll get hooked! (A reader also said it’s available on Hoopla, which is a free streaming service linked to many library cards.)
Even though the 36 episodes were shot at different times, each one is self-contained and you don’t necessarily have to watch them in sequence.
Pre-pandemic, my husband Jerry and I had plans to visit Sicily, which were, of course, quashed. When travel restrictions ease up and the virus abates (hopefully), we’ll be much better prepared for our trip and are hoping to add the province of Ragusa (the stand-in for Vigàta) to our itinerary. Apparently, I’m not alone. The Montalbano series led to a 40% pre-pandemic spike in tourism to what previously was an unspoiled area of Sicily.
If you enjoyed the TV series, you’ll also love reading Andrea Camilleri’s books. His beautiful prose is enchanting and easy to read. Once you read one, you’ll want to read the whole set.
This fun documentary on YouTube revisits many of the settings of the series:
Luca Zingaretti (Detective Montalbano) and Andrea Camilleri on Instagram
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Quel triste giorno sta per arrivare. Ecco le prime anticipazioni con un gran colpo di scena sull’uscita di #Riccardino, l’ultimo romanzo di #AndreaCamilleri che chiude l’epopea di #Montalbano (link in bio)… . . . #montalbanosono #IlCommissarioMontalbano #CommissarioMontalbano #lasiciliadimontalbano #Vigata #salvomontalbano #luoghidimontalbano #Camilleri #andreacamilleri #sicilianità #sicilianista #lucazingaretti @lucazingarettiofficial @sellerioeditore @montalbano_rai
The house of Salvo Montalbano in Vigata
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„Rispetto alla natura, la gente è ancor più complessa e variegata. Il bello della Sicilia è la scoperta quotidiana di siciliani sempre diversi. Chiudere il siciliano in un ruolo di tanghero scostante è un errore grosso. Certo che esiste un siciliano di questo tipo ma c’è anche il sangue di tredici dominazioni. Credo che oggi, noi siciliani, abbiamo l’intelligenza e la ricchezza dei bastardi, la loro vivacità e arguzia.“ Andrea Camilleri . . #montalbano #sicilia #sicily #andreacamilleri #ragusa #lucazingaretti #commissariomontalbano #puntasecca #scicli #tv #vigata #camilleri #siciliabedda #angelorusso #ragusaibla #montalbanosono #libri #books #ilcommissariomontalbano #modica #italy #rai #barocco #bhfyp #cesarebocci #italia #soniabergamasco #peppinomazzotta #instagood #bhfyp