On a winding Italian road, a judge is assassinated by a terminally ill parolee, Tito Spadola. Spadola is executing a long-nurtured vendetta, killing those who put him behind bars many years ago. But the case is outside the jurisdiction of Detective Aurelio Zen, who has his hands full with a messy and highly political case.
Zen, professionally hobbled by his reputation for integrity, has been handed a murder case that is neatly tied up with a prime suspect who has made a confession. Yet the powerful and corrupt Interior Ministry has taken an interest in the case, and in Zen. The prime suspect, Renato Favelloni, has rescinded his confession, and the Ministry fears that in his defense, Favelloni will reveal the sordid dealings between the government and the murder victim, construction magnate Oscar Faso.
From Zen, the Ministry demands Favelloni's acquittal while Zen's boss, chief Moscati, demands his conviction. At the risk of career suicide, Zen decides that the man is indeed innocent, and begins an investigation in pursuit of the truth.
Just as a professional opportunity arises, so too does a romantic one, in the beautiful new colleague, Tania Moretti. When she needs a favor from someone who can be trusted, it is Zen that she approaches. But just as the two become close, Zen follows his investigation to the scene of Faso's murder, the nearly impenetrable Abruzzo estate. There, he encounters a caretaker and his wife; a mysterious girl and a missing Russian groundskeeper. Will Zen manage to solve Faso's murder, appease his crossed-purposed superiors, and get the girl? To do so, he will need to survive the deranged psychopath in hot pursuit.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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In the Italian countryside, a car carrying the high-court judge Bertolini is stopped at the scene of an accident. But it's a ruse: a terminally ill parolee, Tito Spadola, and his son Pepe set a trap to execute the judge who, years ago, put the innocent Tito behind bars for murder. Tito first shoots Bertolini's chauffeur, then the judge. Then he is off to exact his revenge on the others complicit in sending him to jail.
Meanwhile, Zen arrives at the police headquarters in Rome, spotting Tania Moretti, the beautiful new secretary of his volatile boss, Moscati. From Moscati, Zen learns that they have been summoned to the powerful Ministry to discuss his pre-trial review on the brutal slayings of billionaire construction magnate Oscar Faso and his call girl "house guests." Faced with budget cuts, Moscati is panicked — in spite of the prime suspect having confessed and sitting behind bars, the investigation by the local police was sloppy.
Briefing Minister Guerchini and his aide, Colonna, Zen admits, at their prompting, that there were indeed inconsistencies in the largely circumstantial case. Faso's state-of-the-art security system was triggered when the murder suspect, Faso's business partner Renato Favelloni, fled, and yet the murder weapon, Faso's hunting rifle, was found neither on Favelloni nor anywhere in the nearly-impenetrable estate. Moreover, unidentified fingerprints — not Favelloni's — were found on the key to the cupboard in which the rifle was kept.
The Ministry's interest in the case and in Zen is soon clarified when Colonna arranges a secret meeting with Zen. Because the prime suspect Favelloni has withdrawn his confession, the Minister would like Zen to exploit the case's weaknesses and exonerate Favelloni. The businessman, it turns out, is in the position to reveal sordid dealings between the government and the murder victim. When Zen tries to refuse, Colonna merely points out the potential professional advantages of helping and price of noncompliance. Moscati, unaware of the Minister's plan, orders Zen to secure Favelloni's conviction no matter what.
While Zen muddles through his professional dilemma and his awkward crush on Tania, Tito has tracked down his next victim, Fausto Arcuti, the crime family member who framed Tito for murder. He dispatches the man with a shot to the head.
For help, Zen turns to his trustworthy old friend and former associate, Gilberto Nieddu. He confides that, after a conversation with Favelloni, he thinks that the businessman is innocent. Soon after, he receives a warning call from Gilberto, who noticed that Zen is being followed. Another old contact, his informant Angelo, is soon in touch. His friend Fausto Arcuti has been killed and he asks Zen to look into the murder. Zen promises to make some calls.
Tailed on his way home, Zen is spooked to find the door to his apartment building, where he lives with his mother, open. His mother is okay, but he moves her the safety of Gilberto's house while he travels to Faso's mountain village to investigate. There, he meets the local police officer, Mario.
At Faso's villa, Zen interviews the caretaker, Bini, and his Russian wife, Ana. Looking around the grounds, he encounters a strange urchin girl and learns from Mario that the young woman, Lucia, was the daughter of the previous owner. Tragically, her father locked her in a cellar and abused her for years. When he died, the house and land were sold to Faso. Lucia removed herself to live wild in the network of underground caves that dot the mountainside.
Zen wants to interview her, so Mario brings him to the caves. Lucia spots him and runs off, escaping into a cave entrance. Zen follows and when he finds Faso's lighter among a stash of items within the cave, Lucia attacks him. He falls into an underground river and is carried deep into the terrifying cave system. Warding off panic, the detective finds an opening high above and climbs up, surfacing to find himself in the cellar of Faso's so-called impenetrable estate.
Zen questions Ana further, probing her on the subject of Avel Vasko, the Ukrainian estate worker with whom she was having an affair. Vasko, she reveals, was actually an Italian national named Giulio. But he had the perfect alibi, watching a football match in a bar with Mario at the time of the murder. Zen shares with Mario his intention to pursue Giulio to his mountain hideout.
But Zen himself is under pursuit, followed by Tito, his son Pepe, and their associate, Paolo. A frantic Tania calls Zen from Rome. On his request, she has been reading the Arcuti file and has learned that Arcuti had been a witness in a murder trial years ago — the same trial that Bertolini had presided over. Zen was the Senior Investigating Officer. Could he be next? Just then, he discovers a corpse at the police station — Mario has been killed. Zen swings around to find Tito and son with guns pointed at him. He manages to escape and races off in his car, Spadola close behind. But they had sabotaged his car and when it sputters to a stop, Zen flees into the woods on foot, his hunters closing in on him. Tito forces him to his knees and is about to fire when a shot from nowhere rings out and he keels over, dead. It is Lucia, having emerged from a cave to Zen's rescue. She shoots again, taking out Pepe. Zen scrambles up to her and fires off her gun just as Paolo is about to shoot. Safe, he looks down at the gun in his hands — it is inscribed with Faso's distinctive initial. It is now confirmed for Zen, that Lucia killed Faso.
Back in Rome, Zen is in the Minister's good graces, having tidily exonerated Favelloni and solved seven murders at once. With the Ministry satisfied, he is able to protect the vulnerable Lucia by deflecting resources and interest from the investigation, noting that the girl will never be found and implying that, what's more, she was an innocent pawn, anyway.