|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 03 December 2002|
"Serpico" is based on the true story of the life of undercover New York police officer Frank Serpico (Al Pacino), an honest cop trying to expose the corruption that plagues the New York police force in the late 1960s. It's an uphill battle, as he fights not only his fellow officers’ scorn and hatred of his innate sense of justice, but the apathy of a system which accepts corruption as the norm. Serpico uses every available resource, but in the end, he is a man who simply wishes to do his job -- to serve and protect. He has no ambitions beyond that, and that desire is both his greatest strength and weakness, as his relationships with those around him are swallowed by his crusade.
Pacino brings an enormous sense of realism and humanity to a Quixotic character who could have been reduce to a two-dimensional saint, aided by Sidney Lumet's direction and Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler's screenplay, adapted from a book by Peter Maas. The film presents an affecting picture of urban life in a period of great social upheaval and one man's drive to be more than he is. Frank is consistently shown as wanting to broaden his horizons, reading, taking classes and searching for answers to questions he is discouraged from asking by both his fellow officers and the perceived limitations of his class and upbringing. Pacino's performance is nuanced and affecting as he takes Frank from idealistic Academy grad all the way through bitter disillusionment. The brass ring he is desperately clutching at is a gold detective's shield, but by the end of the film, that victory is revealed as hollow. What Serpico is actually fighting for is simply a better world.
Visually, the film is a masterpiece in presenting the gritty, sometimes seedy underbelly of New York City, illuminated by simple scenes of Serpico with his family, particularly his Italian-speaking mother. One sequence in particular, a scene in Italian with no subtitles, of Frank and his mother as she attempts to give him money she has saved for him as he prepares to move out onto his own, illuminates the characters through simple gestures that audiences of any background can relate to. Arthur J. Ornitz's cinematography is beautifully preserved in digital format, from a print that is almost defect-free, with colors subdued but natural throughout. Blacks and flesh tones are consistent, and the level of detail, considering the age of the film, is excellent.
”Serpico” is a dialogue-driven film, and the audio mix reflects that. The DVD’s 5.1 track is a remix of the film's original mono track (which is also available on the disc). The dialogue is clear and easy to understand, with the surrounds used lightly but effectively. The mix does an excellent job of creating the world of the film through little touches, such as the mix of voices and noise in crowd scenes and the sound of rain and the like to create solid atmosphere. Of particular note is Mikis Theodorakis' score -- the famed composer provides very little music for the film, but it is used enormously effectively to underscore key scenes. The lack of music in the film only lends to its documentary-like feel, and succeeds in keeping the viewer lost in the world of the film, supporting the drama rather than overshadowing it.
While fans of Pacino may be bitterly disappointed by the lack of actor interviews in the special features, the meat-and-potatoes of the featurettes are the interviews with director Lumet and producer Martin Bregman as they discuss bringing the film to life. Simple and straightforward, they describe the production and their recollections are packed with anecdotes that add fascinating details to the experience of watching the finished product. The disc also features a montage of still photographs from the film, accompanied by Lumet's narration and Theodorakis' score, as well as a brief featurette as director and producer comment on their favorite scenes. However, one wishes the disc had come with a feature-length commentary from Lumet and Pacino himself. Rounding out the special features is the ubiquitous theatrical trailer.
Fans of the film will be delighted at the quality of the disc in terms of visuals and audio. While the special features are light, they are informative and well-made. The “Serpico” DVD displays solid craftsmanship all around, and the disc is an excellent presentation for both old fans and new.