Among the many genres Italian cinema is renowned for (Neo-realism, Western, etc.), there are two which have always inspired memorable associations: political and crime thrillers as evidenced by such famous examples as Salvatore Giulano, Hands Over the City, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Confessions of a Police Captain, Illustrious Corpses or The Moro Affair, to cite only a few ones. Suburra is a new addition to this venerable lineage, even if the movie doesn’t really manage to fully deliver on its ambitious setting.
Hidden in the shadows of the Colosseum, the Suburra district was the criminal underbelly of Ancient Rome, home of the city’s darkest secrets. In modern times, crime and corruption have spread deep inside the city where everything can be bought for a price. Suburra takes place over the last days leading up to the “Apocalypse” as a former crime boss, known as “Samurai” (Claudio Amendola, La Scorta), is instructed by Mafia families to turn the waterfront of Rome into a new Las Vegas. Elsewhere, a politician (Pierfrancesco Favino, Romanzo Criminale) becomes pivotal in a chain of events which sees him drawn into a web of murders.
At first sight Suburra brings a pleasant perfume of 70s European co-productions: an ambitious setting mixing politics, crime and religion; a co-production between Italy and France, via Cattleya and La Chauve Souris, reminding the famous co-productions between the two countries during the 50s, 60s and 70s; a famous French actor, Jean-Hughes Anglade (Betty Blue), in the seemingly key role of Cardinal Berchet reinforcing the link with movies like Illustrious Corpses with Lino Ventura (The Wages of Fear). Furthermore, Sergio Sollima is the son of Sergio Sollima (the “third Sergio” of Spaghetti Westerns’ fame (The Big Gundown, Face to Face) who also directed two of the best Italian crime thrillers of the 70s: The Familly, aka Città violenta, with Charles Bronson, and Blood in the Streets, aka Revolver with Oliver Reed. In short, all the elements were gathered for a glorious throwback to the golden age of European Cinema.
However, after the first reels of the movie, it is clear that Sollima and his crew have decided to firmly anchor their latest effort in the present and to make it a continuation of their previous TV work (anecdotally, similarly to Gomorrah and Romanzo Criminale, the movie will be followed by a TV series for Netflix in 2017).
Sollima surrounded himself with a team of regular collaborators all very familiar with the elements of the movie: Sandro Petraglia and Stephano Rulli co-wrote the screenplays for one of the most memorable recent Italian political thriller ( Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy ), and Giancarlo De Cataldo and Carlo Bonini both co-wrote the source novel for Suburra, and worked on the screenplays for Romanzo Criminale and its TV series adaptation (the later also wrote the book for who inspired Sollima’s previous movie A.C.A.B.).
With Suburra, their aim is to dismantle the networks of corruption, debauchery, financing, villainy which form an integral part of the rebuilding of the Suburra quartier. If they definitely manage to create an striving and intelligent movie tackling all these aspects, the aforementioned setting elements are unfortunately not adequately balanced; more specifically, as the story progresses, the Gipsy Mafia components have a tendency to become too important to the point of phagocytosing the whole movie itself and making us wonder if Sollima and his team didn’t see an opportunity to surpass their previous forays into the genre with the Gomorra TV series.
The religious element of the movie is also frustratingly under-developed; after a promising solemn opening involving the Pope, the movie gets side-tracked sacrificing, at the same time, Anglade’s character with two marginally interesting scenes.
These issues are fortunately balanced by the fascinating depiction of the opportunistic corruption of the Italian Parliament members and the strength of a great cast perfectly led by Amendola and Favino, but of which the characters of Sebastiano (Elio Germano, My Brother is an Only Child) and Numero 8 (Alessandro Borghi, Don’t Be Bad) stand out as the true emotional anchors of the movie.
Despite not being able to elevate itself to the level of some of the most recent Italian political movies such as Marco Tullio Giordana’s last masterpiece, Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy (which also stars Favino), Suburra displays all the strengths of ambitious Italian political cinema and is worth seeing in the cinema before its TV iteration.