Frank Serpico tells his own story in Antonino D’Ambrosio’s documentary

Frank Serpico, right, and filmmaker Antonino D'Ambrosio during the making of the documentary about the retired NYC policeman. —Trevor Tweeten/Tribeca Film Festival via AP

New York City cop Frank Serpico spent years telling his superiors that police officers were pocketing hefty sums of payoff money from gamblers and drug dealers. He, along with Detective David Durk, took the story to the New York Times in April 1970, and in February 1971, Serpico was bleeding outside a drug dealer’s door with a bullet that’s still lodged in his brain. Fast-forward to next Monday, July 17, when the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival will screen “Frank Serpico,” a documentary that has 81-year-old Serpico telling the story himself. The film is directed by another Italian-American, Antonino D’Ambrosio, and will begin at 7:30 pm, with dinner and music before the screening at 6:30 pm at the Chilmark Community Center. A discussion via Skype with D’Ambrosio follows the film.

In what’s been depicted in most films and books as a setup, Serpico knocks on a drug dealer’s door in a Brooklyn apartment building, the door opens just enough, and he’s shot, dropping to the floor while two brother officers stand by doing nothing. When an officer gets hit, a 10-13 call — a call to assist an officer — is supposed to go out. With Serpico, the call was a 10-10, meaning a “possible crime” committed. The call for help was allegedly made by a man living in the apartment building, not a police officer.

The story is legendary. Frank Serpico took an unprecedented stand against power and authority, even testifying at hearings for the Knapp Commission (formed to investigate the New York City Police Department after the New York Times story broke) after he was shot. Peter Maas wrote a book about him, and in 1973, Sidney Lumet made a film, “Serpico,” starring Al Pacino.

People have tried for years to pull the real story out of Serpico; he left the police department in 1972 and went to the Netherlands for nearly 10 years to continue recovering, and ostensibly to get away from his own story. He’s lived the past 45 years coming out of the shadows occasionally to advocate against corruption.

“He’s a fascinating person,” D’Ambrosio said in a telephone interview with The Times last week. “There were times when I was with him that I thought he was in his late 50s, or maybe 60.”

Serpico speaks seven languages, practices Buddhism, and, like D’Ambrosio, plays the clarinet.

It was the commonalities between himself and Serpico that really drove D’Ambrosio to make the documentary. They both are first-generation Americans with parents who emigrated from Italy.

“Being Italian definitely gave me a leg up with him. One of the first times we were talking on the phone we were reciting Dante passages in Italian,” D’Ambrosio said. “He’s really a fully alive human being; there’s a thoughtfulness in place, but there’s a restlessness. He’s an ordinary person who rose to the extraordinary.”

And it’s interesting to note that it was Serpico who sought out D’Ambrosio. He liked the director’s book, “A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears,” which tells the story behind Johnny Cash’s little-known protest record “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.”

“He approached me; he called me up and said, ‘I’d love for you to write a book about me,’ and I wasn’t so interested in doing that, but we started to develop a relationship. He’d call and talk to me, and I mean about everything, not just his story. When you enter the circle, you’re in the circle,” D’Ambrosio said. Eventually Serpico suggested D’Ambrosio make a film instead, and D’Ambrosio agreed.

“Frank Serpico” traces the story back to his family’s roots, his father’s cobbler shop in Brooklyn, and Serpico’s innocent notion of living the American dream before it was crushed by brutal reality. D’Ambrosio takes Serpico back to his West Village apartment, where he gets nostalgic. Old neighbors talk to the camera, sharing their memories of him. Serpico also visits the apartment building where the shooting took place. There are more bucolic scenes of Serpico at his upstate New York home, miles from the memories of the city. Serpico still sports a semblance of his hippie look, scarves and pierced ears and a medallion dangling around his neck. His long hair is gray and shaggy in most scenes, shaved close and spare in others. Serpico revisits his old partner, and there are interviews with other retired police officers, some who question whether or not they could’ve done what he did. Serpico talks about his career, saying, “You know, it was a calling to me.”

D’Ambrosio is a visual artist, writer, and filmmaker with a mission. He wants to relate to the audience, bring them a story of courage, of ordinary people who do extraordinary things. “I do feel like we need to constantly tell ourselves we have more power than we realize,” D’Ambrosio said. “Frank was one person … All is not lost; maybe the biggest thing I can do, maybe that’s my role. Art, writing, films, they’re like quicksilver: You pour it on the ground and it seeps into all the cracks. If you put it out there, you never know who it’s going to touch.”