Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Word of advice to anyone approaching Michele Placido’s two and a half hour crime movie: bone up on Italian political history first. Pay particular attention to the 70s. Litmus test: if you don’t know who Aldo Moro was and what happened to him, you’re going to struggle.
‘Romanzo Criminale’ starts with four juvenile delinquents stealing a car and going hell for leather through a police roadblock (they casually run down a cop) before holing up at a beachside caravan they use as their hideout. One of them, thrown against the steering column during the hit and run, is in agony; nonetheless, they treat the aftermath of their stunt flippantly and discuss what gang-style nicknames they’d like to be known by. They settle on Lebanese, Ice, Dandy and Grand. At this point the cops show up. Grand is left behind as the others leg it. Ice is fetched to the ground by a couple of cops, Lebanese is injured trying to help him, and Dandy just runs like hell and lets the other two take the fall (not to mention the prison sentence).
Flash forward to adulthood. Lebanese (Pierfrancesco Favino) and Ice (Kim Rossi Stuart) get out of the nick, reunite with Dandy (Claudio Santamaria), put together a gang of fellow felons, pull off a kidnapping and use the ransom money to finance a take-over of Rome’s criminal underground. This they achieve via muscling in on drug baron Terrible (Massimo Popolizio)’s operation, forming an edgy alliance with Mafioso patriarch Uncle Carlo (Luigi Angelillo), and basically wiping everyone else the fuck out.
Meanwhile, Police Commissioner Scialoja (Stefano Accorsi) gets a lead on high class hooker Patrizia (Anna Mouglalis), who’s spending a chunk of the ransom money like it’s going out of style; she leads him to Dandy, who’s infatuated with her to the point where Lebanese and Ice have to coerce her into accepting his overtures in order to keep his mind on the job. Scialoja meticulously builds his case, but his superiors are unsupportive and, no sooner has he managed to arrest Lebanese, than a shadowy government operative secures his release and sabotages Scialoja’s case. Now the gang find themselves in the debt of a mysterious benefactor who calls in favours of an increasingly political nature.
‘Romanzo Criminale’ – the title translates as ‘Crime Novel’ – is based on a novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo, a former judge who based his magnum opus on his experience in the trials of the notorious Magliana gang. It’s clear that Placido intended his adaptation to be a sweeping epic in the vein of ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Goodfellas’, spanning several decades and plotting the rise and fall of Lebanese, Ice and Dandy’s empire against a blood-red period of Italian social and political history. And in a few places, he comes close to achieving that, such as in the dizzyingly fast-paced sequence which takes in Lebanese and Ice’s release from jail, formation of the gang and execution of the kidnapping. Elsewhere, Lebanese’s cocaine-fuelled paranoia over his benefactor and the rivalry between Dandy and Scialoja over Patrizia generate some frisson.
Where ‘Romanzo Criminale’ suffers is in Placido’s uneven pacing, and an aesthetic that seems more fitted to the small screen. The material cries out for magisterial visuals and powerhouse acting, and instead we get set-pieces that are often curiously flat and TV-quality acting. For the most part Placido casts pretty boys rather than tough guys, making it difficult to believe in his cast as hardcore, ruthless and brutal recidivists. A romantic subplot between Ice and the unbelievably naïve Roberta (Jasmine Trinca) doesn’t really convince either.
Most frustratingly, the political elements are firmly backgrounded, only affording us glimpses of two players in the great Machiavellian conspiracy which, whenever it’s touched upon, hints at a far more intriguing and compelling story than the one we’re actually watching. Had these scenes been explored deeper – and imbued with the knife-edge cynicism of, say, ‘The Parallax View’ or ‘Three Days of the Condor’ – ‘Romanzo Criminale’ might have emerged as something really special.