When it comes to Italian media there seems to be one governing theme spanning TV, Film and literature – Crime. For TV the main inspiration for their modern (and controversially Americanised) dramas come from past political scandals and brutal organised gangs that stained the reputation of a beautiful and peaceful country. This brutal reputation led to an influx of American films based on Italian/American gangs which, to this day, has never really seen a change in the stereotype. Even The Sopranos (1999-2007) adopted this stereotype (albeit with the occasional emotional twist) which shows not only the popularity of the Italian crime drama but the ever lasting fascination with the mafia. Romanzo Criminale is a version that we don’t often see – the humble beginnings.
Based on the exploits of the real-life criminal street gang ‘La Banda della Magliana’, Romanzo Criminale is about a group of friends who decide that they want a good life away from poverty. With Lebanese at the helm, Freddo and Dandi move from petty crime to murder, extortion, kidnap and even create a drug empire all in the apparently sleepy City of Rome.
The series begins in Magliana in 1977, one of Romes biggest working class districts, with Lebanese, Buffalo and Dandi stealing typewriters from the back of a van. whilst the operation is a success it also becomes a reminder that small payouts are not enough. Spurred by greed, they decided to team up with another good friend, Freddo, to kidnap Baron Rosellini (a wealthy old aristocrat) for a big payout. 2 Billion lira later, Lebanese proposes a project for the gang at the expense of the majority of their money – drugs. Slowly they begin to flood Rome with Cocaine and Heroin and begin to make the money and fame they craved from the start. But not without the attention of Police Commissioner Scialoja.
Romazo Criminale pays great attention to the political and social revolution happening in Italy at the time. After World War Two the reconstruction of government swiftly began, and the first to go were the communists and anybody with any communist association. Then those left with the power began to suppress the working class organisations (such as the Trade Unions) leaving no protection for workers. With low wages, high hours and terrible housing conditions the working class began to revolt – and so began and era of a war between workers and government. The wealth from the 50’s was long gone by the 70’s and rent was almost impossible to pay for. With the protests, terrible working conditions, and seemingly endless political struggle, it’s no wonder that the characters in this drama had resorted to crime in order to provide for themselves. It Ingrains these struggles so well in this drama and often shows radical demonstrations throughout the series. Even when the show doesn’t directly show these protests and acts of violence, we are always casually reminded via an occasional glimpse of a newspaper or the faint whispers of a news reporter from a TV .
Romanzo Criminale is a through and through rags to riches story but with flares, mustaches, and the occasional Iggy Pop tune. The 70’s setting is perfect for this Italian drama and it does well to immerse the audience in a broke but equally affluent city. The main actors do well to inhibit the roles of down-trodden criminals with ambitions of grandeur and all have specific personalities that help create a unique character. Whilst the production quality (camera, lighting) does let it down somewhat, it’s rescued by the ‘Guerrilla’ style handheld camera direction which only adds to the immersion. What makes it even more remarkable is the occasional comedy that can take you by surprise; Disco music and torture – a surprising, giggle inducing disparity.
In conclusion, for an Italian TV series Romanzo Criminale is held in the highest of praise – and quite rightly so. It includes all the tropes of an Italian crime drama but refreshes the scene with intelligent characterisation and via a period when Italy was in the biggest transition of its existence. Who knew oversized collars and flawless perms could be so intimidating?
Out 14th September on Arrow Films.