In Italy, organised crime and politics have never seemed worlds apart and the affiliation between the two is dissected in Stefano Sollima’s latest feature ‘Suburra’, named after a quarter of ancient Rome. The neo-noir drama is based on a novel by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo, and marks a return to film for the director following his television work on the likes of Gomorra and Romanzo Criminale. Set in 2011, the contemporary tale of corruption centres around shady lawyer Filippo ‘Pippo’ Malgradi (Pierfrancesco Favino) as he mixes business with pleasure in Rome’s criminal underworld. A feared Mafioso going by the name of Samurai (Claudio Amendola) is behind a project to turn the capital’s waterfront into the “Las Vegas of Europe” but when local mobsters inadvertently foil his plans, a violent gang war ensues that spells trouble for Malgradi and everyone around him.
The plot is complex yet compact as various narratives unfold simultaneously within this uber-stylish representation of Rome, as soaked in blood as the heavy rain which falls consistently throughout. In the opening half an hour, there is a lot to take in as we are introduced to a multitude of characters, mostly bad, including gangsters with nicknames such as Dagger and Number 8. However, where the movie lacks in its imagination as far as villainous aliases are concerned, it more than makes up for in the intelligence and subtle power behind the storytelling, accompanied by striking visuals and a pulsing soundtrack from French electro-synth pop group M83.
Because of the amazing screenplay and direction from Sollima, there is no shortage of top-drawer performances from the extensive cast. Favino excellently portrays a flawed family man at risk of losing everything he has worked for, and is the closest the film has to someone with a moral conscience. Interesting turns come from the young and menacing, including Giacomo Ferrara who plays Dagger, a gypsy thug who is underused but makes an impact with his limited screen time. Alessandro Borghi and Greta Scarano take centre stage for pivotal scenes as their on-screen relationship as hot-headed Number 8 and junkie squeeze Viola spirals out of control. They depict the lovers as more than just mindless criminals, which gives their story an empathetic edge despite the ruthless acts they commit.
Stefano Sollima fantastically pulls the strings between the strong use of violence on the surface and the solid political themes underneath, and this balancing act is handled with a precision that makes the film stand out above recent efforts in the field. The rich tapestry of characters feel detailed and memorable, as if they’ve been developed over the course of a television series, and the performances bring them off the page with glorious impact. ‘Suburra’ is shocking, brutal and brilliant cinema, paying homage to crime classics but in turn refreshing the sub-genre to present a modern masterpiece.