Every crime-solver has a routine, from Holmes puffing on his pipe as he ponders the perfidies of Moriarty to Harry Bosch at his home on stilts overlooking L.A., chilling over cold cases present and past listening to his perfectly maintained vinyl collection of the coolish jazz of George Cables and Art Pepper.
Inspector Rocco Schiavone has his routine as well. To underlings, colleagues, or superiors, he has tried to make clear that he is not to be disturbed in his office at police headquarters in Aosta in the Italian Alps until he has closed his door, opened his drawer, emptied a cigarette of its tobacco, filled it with marijuana, and taken a few deep hits of his makeshift joint.
The weed takes the edge off, but rarely lifts Schiavone out of his crankiness. The first thing we learn about this medium-boiled police detective is that he maintains a 10-point “pain in the arse” scale, which he discloses to his capable but naive junior partner Italo on their first day together. The viewer never
learns what the first five are, but the idiosyncratic ethos begins with six (browsing shops or paying rent). Seventh-level pains in the arse (according to the English subtitles of this Italian-language show) include shopping centers and accountants. Level Eight is giving a speech, or reporting to a magistrate, as he often must in the chain of command of Italian law enforcement. Heavy-smoker Schiavone’s ninth circle of hell is closed tobacco shops, and being on duty with colleagues who don’t wash. If you freeze the frame
ICE COLD AT A GLANCE
This Italian whodunnit, flying under the PBS Masterpiece banner, features a cranky fish-out-of-water detective with the usual complement of eccentricities banished to a mountain town and haunted by the murder of his wife.
here, you can see the grizzled Schiavone, in the passenger seat, giving his Clint Eastwood squint, with cigarette in mouth rather than the Man With No Name cheroot, and just the slight hint of a “Come on, kid, I’m pulling your leg” smile as he looks over at Italo, driving. Italo, of course, sniffs himself to check for body odor.
There is only one Level Ten in the world according to Rocco: “Having to deal with murder. That’s a tenth-level pain in the arse.” Since investigating murders is his specialty, he spends a great deal of the 12 episodes in Season One of Rocco Schiavone in metaphorical need of a proctologist.
Played with gruff humor by 57-year-old Italian film and TV star Marco Giallini (Perfect Strangers and God Willing) and based on a series of novels by Antonio Manzini, Schiavone’s origin story is from the same template as most good European crime fiction: An outstanding cop with contempt for formalities crosses an ethical line in the capital and is exiled to the provinces. For Schiavone, a sophisticate who loved Rome, its food, coffee, culture, and climate, it is especially difficult to be assigned to Aosta, where he has trouble adjusting to the mountain climate and small-town ways.
Rocco has some specifically Italian dilemmas. Clothes, specifically shoes, are a problem. When a bloody body is found mangled in the snowy mountains of this ski-resort town, Schiavone begins his investigation with his stylish Roman footwear and a hip lightweight jacket, which are useless keeping his feet dry and body warm. Having to adapt with an insulated mountain jacket and snow boots (which he refers to disdainfully as “dinghies”) results in a sixth-level pain in the arse, because he must browse a shop to purchase the survival gear.
It also brings him down a peg, since Schiavone detests the required collegiality required to be a good cop in a small town. He is, nevertheless, a grumpy but good mentor. But though Schiavone is a master at solving murders, he is not exactly an honest cop. He is corrupt to a degree, but which level of corruption he will not countenance is based on some internal measure that is never certain.
We get a glimpse of it early when, based on a tip from one of his semi-crooked buddies in Rome, he induces his new protégé Italo to join him in a scheme to seize a truck carrying cannabis. The idea is to take the weed and whatever cash the truckers have. It looks like an easy knockover, but the inside info is inaccurate—the truck also contains a large amount of cocaine, as well as a large number of African migrants being smuggled from the Netherlands en route to somewhere else in Italy. Rocco disapproves of coke—he spills it out on the snowy highway. He and his buddies share the cash, Rocco keeps the weed, but there is some ambiguity whether Rocco is forwarding the immigrants to be intercepted by Interpol or callously sending them along to whatever misfortune awaits them.
Schiavone is also a ladies man, a fact complicated by the fact that he appears to be married to a woman he adores. In the first episode, he is forced out of bed with a winsome young woman to attend to the bloody corpse in the mountains (you will enjoy the red-on-white contrasts), but first he stops at home to talk to his lovely and understanding wife Marina. It takes a
little time to sink in that the wife is a ghost, and that Rocco is both obsessed with avenging her death and refusing to let go of the love for her. Rocco sleeps with a lot of women in Aosta, but he lives, miserably, pining for the late Marina, who talks to him in each episode and tries to keep his head straight.
In addition to the scenic contrasts of this lovely small town set against the snowy peaks of the mountains, the musical backing by Corrado Carosio
and Pierangelo Fornado is moody and elegant enough to stand alone as soundtrack albums released by Rai. And the song that kicks off each episode, “Mescalito,” by Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees) and Duke Garwood, is as haunting an opening track you’ll find this side of “Woke Up This Morning” by the Alabama 3 for The Sopranos. You can hear the full six-minute version of “Mescalito” on You Tube and other streaming services.
Wayne Robins is a veteran journalist, music critic, and author. His books include A Brief History of Rock . . . Off the Record, and Behind the Music: 1968. His articles and essays have appeared in anthologies about Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, and others. A 2021 inductee of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame for his writing and criticism at Newsday (1975–1995), he is an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in Queens, NY.