How is the ownership of one object assigned to one person or another, and what does the nature of ownership say about the owner? In Elio Petri’s hallucinogenic black comedy Property Is No Longer a Theft, Total (Flavio Bucci) is told by his father (Salvo Randone) that theft is far worse than a mere crime. Property, he tells Total, is the only thing that signifies and separates individuals from each other – in confusing ownership, theft is an undermining of the social order.
Targeting the unnamed Butcher (Ugo Tognazzi) from the bank, Total begins by stealing his knife, then, while distracted at a porn cinema, the Butcher’s hat. Total’s war against the Butcher drives him to distraction, his campaign stepping up when he targets the Butcher’s pacified mistress, Anita (Daria Nicolodi). As much an object in the Butcher’s eyes as his other possessions, Anita represents one of Property’s most interesting, and troubling, qualities. Utterly passive in the face of multiple sexual assaults and apparently complicit in her own objectification, Anita is emblematic of one of the uglier aspects of Italian crime cinema of the era.
Anita is at least given a degree of complexity and depth not always afforded to her giallo contemporaries, underscored by her role in the surrealist dream sequences peppered throughout. Enriching the surrealist tone is Ennio Morricone’s discordant, vertiginous score. The film’s disharmonious textures are a perfect match for Petri’s unsettling visuals, giving figure to the films’ murky political and psychological theorising. Seeing himself at first as a revolutionary, Total unwittingly hears his own defeat in the words of a fellow thief’s eulogy.
Rather than a rebel fighting against a hypocritical system, Total finally sees that thieves perform just as crucial a social function as the police who chase them, and the insurance companies who profit by their crimes. If dishonesty is an essential component in capitalism, then crime becomes a crucial arm of its perpetuation, and so in stealing other’s property, Total effectively perpetuates ownership as a legitimate construct. He is defeated not through fighting the machinations of the law or the greed of the Butcher, but through capitalism’s subsuming of his revolution.