Serpico (1973): What self do we come back to at night?

Eventually this is about Serpico just won’t take bribes like everyone else and will anyone in the whole force finally do something about it. But there’s something worth talking about here. In drawing our attention to a world — New York in all its squalor of the 70s — that is rife with wrongs, it asks, what should our response be to all this?

Do we, sooner rather than later, become complacent and indifferent, assuming the world is not our business for us to care? None of the dirty cops here presumably started out corrupt after all, although they may not have been idealists. Other peoples’ suffering is not our own after all, not if we don’t look.

Or do we presume that this world being common to all of us, it’s no less our own responsibility to take care of it? That the suffering it presents to us is very much the work that needs to be done. How do we envision our role? How big do we cast that vision of commitment?

Lumet has excelled before; 12 Angry Men is all about envisioned commitment.

And Pacino is a smart actor to have. He must have understood the role to be very much about commitment to your craft.

Serpico’s police craft of being intensely committed, preferring to quietly work on his own, spontaneously responding and changing into different roles every day as a plainclothes officer, also Pacino’s acting craft as an actor in the ‘new’ way of the 70s. Exploring and stretching the accepted limits of role, both Serpico and Pacino in this film about him. Meanwhile his superiors frown and view his antics with disdain, just as studio executives would.

We see a free soul who is perfectly at home with a bohemian crowd, because he’s perfectly at home with himself. He listens to classical music in his garden and has no silly macho aversions about accompanying his girlfriend to the ballet. Rather bizarrely he walks around the precinct with a pet mouse, okay.

This is a film about an artist playing an artist, acting about acting.

Someone who wants to be free to practice his craft with purity of work and motive, but has to deal with colleagues and superiors who show up for the money. Expecting everyone else to care about his purity.

That’s fine. Underlying these ideals about deep commitment to truth however, both Serpico’s and Pacino’s about him, is something else, more important this.

We see how accepting a broken world, turning a blind eye to what goes on around us, it’s easy to find a slot somewhere in the machine that pays a little extra. That’s whether you’re a cop or an actor. The cliquey, ‘good old boy’ mentality of going along to get along after all is not the province of dirty cops, it exists everywhere with the same cynicism.

The common legacy of corruption is this cynicism about our ability to do something about what plagues us. Accepting a broken world, we break ourselves, allowing it home with us. Allowing ourselves to grow complacent and indifferent to other peoples’ suffering, we inflict suffering on ourselves.

How can I be a good parent after all, if that same night I would rather take a nap in a patrol car instead of taking a call about a rape nearby? I don’t have to face wrongdoing if I don’t take that call.

So seen this way, the ‘purity’ of work is not some abstruse commitment to an ideal, it’s actually a commitment to remain constant within myself. Recognizing that the self I permit to look the other way is the same self I will come back to at night.

Today the real Serpico speaks out about police brutality.

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writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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Akis Lalos

Akis Lalos

writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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