by Carole Di Tosti
John Turturro appears in a pivotal moment in Antonino D’Ambrosio’s fascinating documentary Frank Serpico. Turturro reads from Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileo and draws a profound comparison between Galileo and Serpico.Both Galileo and Serpico risked their lives to speak the truth against higher ups (Galileo-the church, Serpico-the state) whose power was undermined by their testimony. Galileo and Serpico were threatened with death for this.
John Turturro was just a kid when he saw the Sidney Lumet film Serpico with the astounding Al Pacino (he was nominated for an Academy Award) in the title role. In Lumet’s award-winning film, the iconic whistleblower exposes police corruption in the hope that the top brass of the N.Y.P.D. and officials in New York City law enforcement would be outsted and the cover-up of corruption stopped. Indictments of the higher ups never happened the way he anticipated when Frank Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission.
Frank Serpico’s truthful testimony was electrifying and it resonates for us today. Indeed, taped clips of his testimony are pulled from the archives when corruption rears its ugly head especially with regard to law enforcement agencies nationwide. What Frank Serpico said before the Knapp Commission resonates for all time, as do Bertol Brecht’s words from his play about Galileo.
Serpico, the film and Peter Maas’ best selling book, from which the film was adapted, made the real Frank Serpico a household name. This unwanted celebrity was an underlying reason why Paco (his nickname) left the country to live anonymously in Europe. He left primarily because his life was in danger. He had been shot on the job and had miraculously lived. He felt that he would not as readily get a second chance if he remained in the U.S. after he exposed corruption.
D’Ambrosio’s powerful documentary Frank Serpico chronicles the life and times of this monumental and courageous individual. D’Ambrosio reveals the humble immigrant beginnings of his parents and ties those in with his upbringing where he learned values and beliefs forged from the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Through reviewing his history, we understand the importance of decency, ethical, moral behavior and authenticity. And we learn how his upbringing and values clashed with the systemic corruption he found in law enforcement, perpetrated by officials who were supposed to end it, not cover it up.
The documentary filmmaker uses interviews, family photos and archived news clips and film clips to re-engage us with Frank Serpico’s identity and lifestyle. He edits in clips from the film Serpico at salient points. Sometimes, we discover what really happened counter to Lumet’s “artistic license” to create a “dynamite” film. These segments are humorous as the real Frank Serpico, who was present during the filming, challenged Lumet about skewing a few situations.
D’Ambrosio follows Serpico’s time in Europe and includes the decades after with his return to the U.S. The film reveals how an amazing and exceptional individual has moved on from the stressful circumstances of his past life. Decades later we understand how he has carved out a thriving if circumspect and peaceful lifestyle enjoying nature, gardening and artistic endeavors. D’Ambrosio’s achievement is exceptional and an important clarion call to us at this point in American History. Sometimes there appears to be a dearth of individuals who are willing to be beacons of truth as a moral imperative, especially when truth-telling may put one’s life and/or career in extreme danger.
Frank Serpico made its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival. John Turturro and the real Frank Serpico were on hand for interviews and Frank Serpico and the director and producers were on hand after the film screening to answer questions. John Turturro finally had the opportunity to sit down and talk to his teenage hero whom he had not met prior to the World Premiere. He revealed this in my interview with him on the TFF Red Carpet.
For those who remember seeing Serpico on the big screen when it opened decades ago, or saw it years later on video, the Lumet film is worthy of its awards and nominations. However, D’Ambrosio’s documentary is a must-see. In it you become acquainted with this vital “lamp-lighter” of our time, a true original: Francesco Vincent “Frank” Serpico.