Romanzo Criminale Review

Lebanese: “Damn right, they forgot where they came from, they’ve become domestic pets.”
Ice: “But we’re ferocious beasts.”
Lebanese: “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Ice: “What do you think? At worst, they kill us.”
Lebanese: “We’ve died a million times already. All the times we had to say “Yes sir” to those who treated us like shit. You can’t kill a man twice.”
Ice: “Thumbs up.”
Dandy: “Dicks up too.”

The Story
1960s Rome. Three young criminals, Lebanese (Pier Francesco Favino), Ice (Kim Rossi Stuart) and Dandy (Claudio Santamaria), decide to take a step up from the streets of Rome in to the world of organised crime. It’s the birth of a smart and ruthless organization which soon crushes all its rivals, assuming total control of the drugs trade, whilst imposing brutal criminal laws on Rome. Their progress and changes in leadership take place over twenty-five years, from the 1970s in to the ‘90s, and are inseparably intertwined with the dark history of modern Italy: terrorism, kidnappings and corruption at the highest levels of government. (From the press release)

Fomer judge Giancarlo De Cataldo’s best-selling novel Romanzo Criminale, literally “Crime Novel”, recounted the true story of the Magliana Gang, who rose to dominate the Rome underworld in the late seventies, maintaining their grip throughout the “years of lead” all the way up to 1992 and the end of the Cold War. Actor turned writer-director Michele Placido, no stranger to political films, here tackles the gangster epic and produces one of the best films of last year, if not this decade. Where other directors prefer to wallow in the clichés and stylistic tics of the genre, Placido, working with the original author and writing duo Sandra Petraglia and Stefano Rulli (responsible for the similarly-structured historical drama The Best Of Youth), goes back to history and finds the truth behind the clichés, the people behind the headlines and delivers the entire story wrapped in a first-class cinematic package fluent in the same genre and its maestros.

Divided into three chapters, each one named after one of the three friends in question, the whole is bookended by a unifying childhood scene from the 60s, while the chapters themselves advance through the seventies, eighties and nineties. Brilliantly, Placido actually adapts his urgent, hyper-real style to match both the visual style and colour palette of crime pics of the relevant eras, without ever giving up his tight control of mood and place. Being a career actor himself, Placido can afford to shoot and edit at quite a frantic pace without losing believability, as the ensemble do superb work, the director clearly able to coax the absolute best out of them with the trust that actors frequently can only have in other actors. There is not a single bad performance in the entire film, not one moment that rings false, and even the slightly weak CGI used to bring the horror of the 1980 Bologna Station bombing to vivid life for a generation of viewers to young to remember it is used sparingly, the camera returning to real people reacting in the middle of realistic sets and locations. Action is excitingly violent without being less than realistic or brutal, with as much use made of faces contorted in pain as blood bags and open wounds. Without the human element, this would be a hollow exercise in style, made different only by the political content to the story.

Setting this film apart from other gangster epics, in much the same way as Ram Gopal Varma’s equally excellent Company and Johnnie To’s superlative Election duo, is this political element, something almost entirely absent from the majority of other gangster films. Crime does not take place in a vacuum, nor does it remain unaffected by the larger forces of politics and economics. Lebanese finds his reign as the underworld king of Rome affected by his own co-option into the murky world of political intrigue, and this has consequences first for himself, and then for the organisation under Ice and Dandy. Dogged from their first big kidnapping by a dedicated cop, betrayed by Dandy’s Achilles heel, the whore Patrizia, and undone by their own humanity, the men eventually meet the ends that all such men do, but not without having tried to do some good for those who matter most to them along the way, if not always succeeding.

Superb. Crisp, clean transfer, beautifully detailed, far better looking on DVD than I remember the cinema print being, although that might have just been the projector at the Prince Charles. The realistic 70s-style colour scheme and varied realistic lighting are perfectly rendered, with details such as period lampshades and lighter flames leaping out of the frame. With HD busy snapping at DVD, it’s still nice to see a new release on the latter format that reminds you what a leap forward this format was from VHS, and how it made owning a film in better shape than you saw it an affordable reality. Subtitles are clear white with a slight black outline to enable them to stand out, very useful in a film with this much variation in shading.

Italian 5.1 and 2.0 do the job, with the 5.1 creating some very nice environmental spaces through smart use of directionality. The moody score and terrific period rock/pop songs are excellently timed and conveyed. After years of Euro and Asian films in 2.0 only on U.K. discs, it’s nice to have the 5.1, and a good one at that.

Packaging & Extras
Check disc and press release only on this advance copy, although the pack shot provided resembles the French 2-disc edition with UK & Eire certs and a press quote that sells it right but gets it wrong – the film is a lot less Godfather and Goodfellas than it is Once Upon A Time In America and Company via Fellini and Pasolini – lazy journalism coupled with lazy marketing. Where that edition had a second disc with an introduction from the director & writer/novelist, thirty minutes of deleted scenes with commentary, a twenty-minute Making Of and a twenty-six minute Documentary, this UK single-disc edition adds the twenty minute Making Of at low variable bit-rate alongside the film itself, which is perfectly adequate for a shot-on-video piece. Thankfully, said sole extra is far better at twenty minutes than many longer docs and puff pieces on mainstream US discs, chronologically paced, featuring brief but edifying interviews with author De Castaldo, writer-director Placido, and the key cast members, interspersed with well-chosen on-set footage. I personally would have welcomed an accompanying historical piece to allow those less familiar with late twentieth-century Italian history to understand better how well the film uses real events and news footage to anchor itself, but it comes as no surprise in this market to find no such feature. There are also trailers for Apocalypto and The Darwin Awards.

That I got to see this, Election 2, Company and Ab Tak Chappan in the cinema last autumn must rank as one of the happiest convergences of recent memory. Superlative crime films all, they show how much more life there is still left in the genre, and how it is the ideal cinematic genre for examining recent real-life events without descending into turgid TV drama or utterly false sugar-coated visions unlike our own memories. Romanzo Criminale was deservedly nominated for a number of prestigious awards and won several; it is also worth your time and money, and is already proving to be highly rewatchable, particularly if you need to enlighten acquaintances who erroneously believe The Godfather and Goodfellas to be the beginning and end of the genre. It is another example that, alongside the Death Note duo from Japan, Warner’s international divisions are working at the top of their game, funding original local genre fare that is well worth exporting. I look forward to more from them.

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