Made in 1968, when the spaghetti western was still the dominant genre within the Italian genre industry, this is one of the earliest Italian crime thrillers dealing with the Mafia.
Franco Nero is Bellodi, a young and ambitious police captain from Milan, who is transferred to Sicily. Upon his arrival, he's immediately confronted with the (in)famous "wall of silence" when investigating a Mafia killing in a small town. The victim is a construction builder and it seems obvious that he was murdered because he had neglected the instructions of local Mafia boss, Don Mariano. There is a witness, a young countryman, but he's gone missing. His wife, the attractive Rosa, might have some vital information about the incident too, but refuses to share it with Bellodi. In the meantime the rumor is spread that the incident was a crime of passion: it is said that the victim had an affair with Rosa, and her husband murdered him in hot blood ...
With the only violent action occurring in the opening minutes, Il Giorno della Civetta is far more restrained than most movies on this subject made in the years to come. Based on a novel by Leonardo Sciascia, the script offers a meticulous depiction of the hold the Mafia has on daily life in Sicily, through blackmail, corruption and most of all the infamous Omertà, the code of silence and non-cooperation with authorities. Right from the start it's clear that Bellodi's efforts will remain fruitless: everybody knows what has happened, including Bellodi, but nobody will ever talk because they're all afraid to be silenced forever by Don Mariano and his men.
The story-telling may feel a little heavy-handed to those familiar with more action-packed Italian crime thrillers, but the marvelous cast makes up for any possible lack of excitement. Without the make-up that was used to make him look older in Django, Franco Nero almost looks like a teenager (he was 26 when this movie was made), but his blue eyes and intent look express all the determination of his character, a man who wants to realize the impossible. Claudia Cardinale is breathtakingly beautiful, almost hypnotizing, as the vulnerable, but knowing countrywoman, and while watching the movie it's hard to believe that Lee J. Cobb (Don Mariano) was not a born Italian. Another asset is Tonino Delli Colli's claustrophic, sweaty cinematography (the camera often as close on the proceedings as possible) which adds immensely to the oppressive atmosphere of the story about these two opponents - Bellodi and Don Mariano - who are watching each other with binoculars most of the time. Owls are always on the watch, they see everything, but remain silent.