Three street criminals, friends from childhood, decide to take over the drugs trade in 1970s Rome. While Italy reels under terrorist attacks, one compromised cop wheedles his way closer to the gang.
One of the morally dubious traits of the whole crime genre is that it’s far too easy to romanticise the bad guys. No matter how many murders are committed and laws broken, there’s a code of honour that sets old-school gangsters apart. The “Romanzo” in the title of this Italian movie has nothing to do with that sort of “romance”. It literally translates as ’Crime Novel’ — a generic title like Pulp Fiction or Hard Boiled.
The film gets beneath the skin of the characters, laying bare their hair-trigger emotions, but it doesn’t set them up as heroes. It’s quickly made clear that they belong to a more ruthless era and, having come up from the streets, their greed for power and profit doesn’t even work within the Mafia’s confines. They’re bound by personal loyalties and, when those are destroyed late on, they turn inwards on each other, leaving a body count that would rival the end of Hamlet. As one corpse piles up on top of another, it could be argued that there are too many assassinations on screen. But the story’s logic, as it has been established, is to leave no man standing.
As the normal laws of gravity play out — the rise to power, the hedonistic party, the inevitable fall — the film ticks all of the crime genre’s boxes, providing plenty of action, intrigue and underworld colour. Revenge hits, crooked cops, drug deals, women as either madonnas or whores — they’re all present and correct. However, when it reminds itself that it is telling a story based on a real-life Italian gang, it rises above the basic conventions. This is an alternative portrait of 1970s Italy as seen from the wrong side of the tracks. Street gangs, the Mafia, the police, the judiciary, politicians, the media, the State — it’s one big, secretly-connected web going through a violent period of transition before the Berlusconi era takes hold.
As such, the use of actual news footage of the Aldo Moro kidnap and the terrorist bombing of Bologna train station is gruesome, but grounds the story in reality and gives the film its epic scope. With its dark and colour-bleached visual style, the film — like the characters themselves — plays hard but, at two-and-a-half hours, not necessarily fast.
With a main thrust and subplots that hurdle over several decades, its easy to dub this the Italian GoodFellas. An ambitious, bloody and engrossing work.