Cinema Obscura: Romanzo Criminale
It is very hard to approach a new gangster movie without at least a little baggage; everyone has seen Goodfellas, Scarface, and The Godfather so we all know the tropes and iconography. We know that the film is invariably going to be about a rise to power and then a swift fall into oblivion, we know best friends are going to be betrayers and are going to be dealt with. We know that the main character is going to upset the old guard and put himself and his associates in jeopardy. These are the archetypes of the gangster film and they have been done extraordinarily well by other directors all over the world.Films like The Long Good Friday, Battles Without Honor and Humanity, City of God, all take moderately different stances on the subject but retain the core plot device of a rise to power and subsequent downfall. Cultural and Perspective differences aside the films follow this pattern fairly well and as such the conceit is already well worn. It does not help that some truly remarkable films have been made using this template, the aforementioned Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Long Good Friday, and City of God being legitimate classics of cinema. Because of this I tend to approach most Gangster films with an expectation of homage, such was the case with Romanzo Criminale.
Romanzo Criminale opens with the films three protagonists as children, tearing through the streets of Rome in a stolen car. They are street kids, low class delinquents who have had to fight for everything in life. After running over a police officer the youths drive back to a hideout, the fourth member of their gang gravely injured. The immediate comparison is of course Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America, with the children forming a youthful alliance and even gifting themselves with the nicknames they would become infamous with. However this scene is literally just exposition, the police raiding the hideout as soon as everyone has chosen their name and moving the story forward a few years to meet the characters as young adults.
The film starts off rather unceremoniously, borrowing elements from different films (a montage set to The Sweets’ Ballroom Blitz towards the beginning of the film just screams Goodfellas) but it soon settles down and gets to business. The film is concerned with the formation of the gang and how they become involved with several groups with Italian Politics, becoming tools of the secret service and Fascist Terror groups as they become increasingly powerful.
The film is split into three distinct sections, the focus shifting between the three friends as they each gather control of the gang they helped build. The first segment focuses on Lebanese the more brutish and straightforward of the characters. His character establishes the gang and is a key figure in allying the group with its political supporters. His right hands and childhood friends Ice and Dandy are the focus of the second and third segments respectively.
The gangs rise to power is handled in a way not dissimilar to Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive, a quick flurry of action at the beginning of the film giving them all the power they could ever want. As mentioned before the film is more interested in how the gang, who actually operated in real life Rome in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, would maintain their status through deals with politicians and the Cosa Nostra. Whilst the periphery cast is as grand as you would expect from a two and a half hour gangster epic spanning three decades they are just ciphers. The film is focused on half a dozen characters, the three gangsters, two of their girlfriends and the Police Officer who pursues them intently.
Due to the fact it is based on the real life exploits of a decidedly notorious gang the film wastes little time in actually showing them being gangsters. We are shown their initial assault on a rival Crime Lord and a few assassinations, but largely the film is concerned at getting to the core of figures regarded as beasts by the general populace. This causes certain problems in tracking chronology, as despite events taking place over twenty years the film never makes an effort to age the actors or provide easily identifiable keystones for a timeline. What it does is link the film into news stories from the period, incorporating stock footage of events like bombings and assassinations.
It is a technique often employed in movies, the only problem being that the Italian focus makes a lot of the stories hard to place. Certainly the only recognisable event for me was the bombing of Bologna. The film tries its hardest to link the gang with these events, even having Ice be at the bombing of Bologna. It is an interesting slant on the gangster situation, the relationship between powerful gangs and legitimately powerful men becoming far more overt than usual.
Romanzo Criminale is a film that is very pretty to look at even if it is not particularly inventive in its shooting. It lacks a lot of the panache and finesse you would expect, instead opting to maintain a subtle impassiveness. As such it is an attractive looking film, but there is never really anything to be awed by. The use of music is odd too, the didactic pop used effectively at times but sometimes proving a little too on the nose (White Lines playing as sometime prepares some Cocaine is just this side of comical). The little interludes scored by Paolo Buonvino are absolutely beautiful though, invoking Ludovico Einaudi and Angelo Badalamenti. These pieces of delicate music are used sparingly and surprisingly effective at creating genuine emotion.
The standout aspect of the film is the performances though with the three main actors giving a lot of humanity to characters who could be immensely despicable. The actors responsible for Lebanese and Ice deserve the most credit; with both having to overcome characters that are both impassive and largely vicious. Lebanese in particular is a character who should be terrifying.
Lebanese is the son of a family of servants and as such he harbours a lot of ill will to anyone with wealth. He is certainly the most animalistic of the characters, his predatory mindset and lack of partner giving him very little for the audience to attach to. The character instead works through sheer charisma; he is a storm in a tea cup, a brooding force of nature waiting to strike and as such he is absolutely riveting to watch.
Ice is the audience identification figure, given the lions share of screentime his arc is not dissimilar to Michael Corleone’s journey in The Godfather. Like Michael he is a character who attempts to disconnect himself from the gang, only to be pulled back in when drastic actions puts the gang at risk. He is a far more human character than Lebanese partially due to his relationship with his girlfriend. However there is also a lot less depth to the character whom essentially goes from being an enforcer to being a paranoid ruler with very little in-between.
Dandy brings the humanity to the film, the most cautious of the trio he is the politician of the group, the one who brokers deals. What makes Dandy interesting is the dynamic he has with his partner, a high class call girl who has been outright to be his permanent companion.Dandy is the most gentle of the trio and he is one who first falls in love, his love though unfortunately has her affections split between Dandy and the police inspector pursuing them. As such the situation soon starts to become a bit Lady Macbethish with the girl using her feminine wiles to keep Dandy from doing any harm to the inspector.
What Romanzo Criminale does is offer a glimpse into the minds of three people who would terrorise Rome for three decades. It also offers a glimpse at the corruption which would allow this to happen, intertwining Italy’s politics and its criminal elements at every opportunity. The film treads a well worn path but manages to succeed through the sheer strength of its ensemble of actors.