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Watching Detective Montalbano: A Pandemic Escape for Italophiles

July 13, 2020
Detective Montalbano

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.

Andrea Camilleri, creator of Detective Montalbano

Andrea Camilleri in 2010 (Credit: Wikipedia/Marco Tambara)

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was officially renamed Porto Empedocle Vigàta, adding the fictional name (Vigàta) from the series (although later rescinded).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 hilltown 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.

In Detective Montalbano, the town hall of Scici serves as the police station.

In Detective Montalbano, the town hall of Scicli serves as the police station (Credit: Wikipedia, Francesco Mormino Penna)

Vigata from above from Palomar on Vimeo.

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 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 come 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.”

Binge warning

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, that 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 unspoilt area of Sicily.


This fun documentary on YouTube revisits many of the settings of the series:

 


Luca Zingaretti (Detective Montalbano) and Andrea Camilleri on Instagram


The house of Salvo Montalbano in Vigata

 

View this post on Instagram

 

„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

A post shared by Jessica Missud (@jessica.missud) on

  • Reply
    Judy Freedman
    July 14, 2020 at 7:45 am

    Will have to check this out. So glad I was able to go to Sicily last summer. Hope I can get back there in the future as there is so much more I want to see.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 14, 2020 at 11:45 am

      So lucky it was LAST summer rather than this one, Judy!

  • Reply
    Theresa
    July 14, 2020 at 8:11 am

    We Love Salvo! The series is available for free with a library card and HOOPLA. And you can spend the night in his house as it is now a BnB for 100 euro.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 14, 2020 at 8:43 am

      Thanks for that information, Theresa! I’ll add it to the blog post! Hard NOT to fall in love with Salvo:-)

    • Reply
      Patricia Iovinelli
      July 16, 2020 at 12:55 pm

      Please send me the information to contact the BnB to stay in Salvo’s home. I am planning for the future. Thanks

      • Irene S. Levine
        Reply
        Irene S. Levine
        July 17, 2020 at 6:10 pm

        I did a quick AirBnB search and couldn’t find it myself:-(
        Perhaps, you could contact them? Sorry!

  • Reply
    Michele Peterson
    July 14, 2020 at 9:48 pm

    Thanks so much for this series recommendation Irene! It will be a great way to prep for TBEX next year. Maybe I’ll see you in the province of Ragusa as well.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 15, 2020 at 8:38 am

      That would be so great! Prospects for U.S. citizens traveling to Europe aren’t great right now.

  • Reply
    Marcie
    July 16, 2020 at 9:23 am

    I would also strongly recommend The Young Montalbano which is also on MhZ. It has the same feel and brilliant characters as Montalbano. The series also had me googling Sicilian history. And if you pop over to Sicily, visit Taormina – it is gorgeous.

  • Reply
    Mike
    July 16, 2020 at 9:37 am

    Can I recommend, for some of the same reasons, mhz’s Imma Tataranni? Wonderful views of Basilicata!

  • Reply
    Barbara Castellana Stasiak
    July 16, 2020 at 9:56 am

    I remember hearing, in one of the many interviews with cast and crew that MHZ also includes with the Montalbano series, that there is one more episode to be made. Camilleri wrote one novel that he considered to be the end of Salvo’s story, but that was written a while ago, I think in 1980. It still has to be published and then will be produced as the finale. Since Alberto Sironi, the director of all the episodes so far, passed away about a year ago, I think I heard that the lead actor Luca Zingaretti will be the director of this last gathering of the cast. I know we’ll have to wait a while to see it, so I may go back and binge watch the old episodes again! They’re a good substitute until I can once again visit my cousins in Agrigento province.

  • Reply
    Maya Corrigan
    July 16, 2020 at 11:16 am

    Thank you for your article. We’re great Montalbano fans. Our visit to Sicily, including a Montalbano tour, was scheduled for May 2020. Alas, it didn’t happen. I’ll reschedule when it’s safe to travel. You may want to correct the photo caption for the town hall that serves as the police station. It’s in Scicli not Scici.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 17, 2020 at 6:10 pm

      Correction noted! Thanks!!
      I hope we both get there soon.

  • Reply
    Peter Cashman
    July 16, 2020 at 5:21 pm

    Wonderful, wonderful article Irene. Got hooked on Montalbano several years ago when we had it free over the air on MHZ via our local Los Angeles area PBS Stations.

    As a public broadcasting veteran going back 52 years here in the US and overseas it pains me to see the venerable and much admired Italian public broadcaster RAI described as “state-owned”. This too often implies sinister connotations here in the US. The BBC and the CBC are also “state owned“ if it comes to that.

    Nonetheless yours is one of the finest summations of our beloved Salvo and his gang.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 17, 2020 at 6:09 pm

      Definitely not intended as pejorative, just descriptive! I actually love watching the RAI stations when in Italy even if I don’t quite understand everything.

      Thanks for the very nice compliment, too!

  • Reply
    marleyne
    July 17, 2020 at 3:42 am

    Thank you for a superb review of this epic series. Since I discovered MHz a few years back, “Montalbano” (series and cast) has remained the center of my armchair traveling universe. I love how the writer(s) often used the actual names of certain actors for a number of characters (e.g. Biagio, incredibly rendered by Angelo Testo as a mentally challenged suspect controlled by the Puppeteer). The series is a feast for the senses requiring sharp focus, much like a sightseeing bus purring around jagged-edged cliffs, always returning me to the salty yet calming sea.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      July 17, 2020 at 6:05 pm

      I love your analysis, Marleyne! How beautifully written! Yes, it does keep you at the edge of that bus seat:-)

  • Reply
    Theresa
    July 17, 2020 at 10:06 pm

    I found the BnB on the map – here is the link https://goo.gl/maps/vMtwxttAZzHnsr8N7

  • Reply
    Therese Rickman Bull
    July 23, 2020 at 10:53 pm

    You may be interested in Francine Prose’s “Sicilian Odyssey.” It “brings exotic, enigmatic Sicily to life through the prism of its past.

  • Reply
    Ann
    August 6, 2020 at 11:01 am

    Another great Italian series that I think I found through Amazon Prime: Sorelle. Missing person mystery. Great characters, beautiful scenery, beautiful actors, has kids to seniors, and the Italian is clear and not too hard to follow. Subtitles.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 7, 2020 at 8:33 am

      Thanks so much for this suggestion! I’m on the case (as soon as I get my cable back after the storm)

  • Reply
    Pete_in_OC
    August 27, 2020 at 3:28 pm

    Just signed up to Hoopla today. They show 25 episodes of Detective Montalbano available to borrow.

    Hoopla looks like a great resource for other things as well.

    Appreciate the information’ looking to reminisce on our driving trip in eastern Sicily a few years ago.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      August 28, 2020 at 7:16 am

      Hi Pete,

      Thanks for sharing your “find” and this reasource!

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