On paper Stefan Sollima’s Suburra doesn’t really offer anything new: it’s a sprawling epic about gangsters and organised crime in Italy, and it details the way in which the influence of different crime families and gangs spreads all the way up to the highest echelons of society, noting that there is a point where the movers and shakers of the underworld interact with the movers and shakers of the business world (or, as is the case here, high-ranking politicians and those holding the purse strings in the Vatican). Yet this is a film that is executed with such grace and style it’s difficult to withhold admiration for its pizzazz, or to resist its pulpy, neon-heavy charms. The two-hour running time fizzes by thanks to a strong, multi-threaded story incorporating a range of well-drawn characters, there’s a relentlessness in the way that it moves toward a seemingly-unavoidable crescendo, and it’s all helped along by sporadic action scenes that are as tense as anything I’ve seen this year.
Though it’s set in Rome, Suburra is similar, in a way, to Matteo Garrone’s terrific 2008 crime drama Gomorrah, which fused together five stories featuring a range of different characters who are all connected in one way or another to the Casalesi crime family in Naples (itself part of the organised crime syndicate The Camorra). Indeed Sollima’s name may be familiar to viewers of the TV spin-off of Gomorrah – now in its second season – as he has directed a number of episodes, and it appears he’s about to do the same with Suburra, with Netflix currently developing an initial season for release in 2017. With the TV series of Gomorrah, Sollima developed a number of related, interweaving narratives, and it’s a device that he employs successfully here, juggling and crossing storylines while managing to do justice to most (if not all) of the main characters. Some arcs do feel a little rushed at times – which is understandable considering the comparative length of time of a feature film, as well as the fact that events in Suburra take place during a period of several days – and there’s a little bit of contrivance in terms of moving all the pieces around, but this does imbue the film with a pace that steadily quickens as the stakes get higher for all involved.
The story is largely concerned with collapsing patriarchies, some of which are criminal and some of which are supposedly more respectable and fundamentally important to Italian society. An old, well-connected gangster nicknamed ‘Samurai’ (Claudio Amendola) is trying to broker a deal to build a Las Vegas-style stretch of casinos in a suburb of Rome. As the representative of several criminal gangs he must negotiate with the Vatican, which will help to finance the potential re-development and stands to make huge profits if a law is passed in Parliament allowing the project to proceed. Pushing this through against a backdrop of post-crash austerity and political sleaze – the film is set in 2011, just before Silvio Berlusconi was forced to stand down, though he is never mentioned by name – is Pierfrancesco Favino’s MP Filippo Malgradi, a corrupt and complicit official who throws a disastrous ‘bunga bunga’ party of his own which ends with the death of an underage call girl. Meanwhile we follow another high-class prostitute (Giulia Elettra Gorietti) and her pimp (Elio Germano), both of whom become embroiled in the subsequent mess, as well as a young, violent gangster-on-the-up named ‘Numero 8’ (Alessandro Borghi) and his junkie girlfriend Viola (Greta Scarano), whose escalating tit-for-tat war with ruthless gypsy crime boss Manfredi (Adamo Dionisi) threatens to undermine the re-development project.
The drama is well-scripted – there’s enough detail about the financial and political transactions involved to give the story a degree of credibility – but it’s during the moments of sudden, unexpected and violent mob action that Sollima truly excels, directing several passages with considerable flair. An early hit-and-run outside a suburban restaurant is an arresting and impressively executed taste for what lies ahead, while a gunfight in a supermarket and a subsequent escape through a shopping mall had me on the edge of my seat; it’s the kind of bravura cinema that makes you want to stand up and spontaneously applaud. There are at least three other similar, impressive scenes, each of which carries plenty of impact, each of which raises the stakes even higher for those involved. Sollima is a fine director of realistic, brutal action.
The film is scored beautifully by the French electronic band M83, and their pulsating, emotional songs are a smart accompaniment to the melodrama, montages and scenes of escalating violence. Yet the most striking element of Suburra is the photography, with cinematographer Paolo Carnera incorporating colour in a very stylish fashion. He uses bright neon lights to fine effect during the scenes set at night, and relies on the bold interior production design to fill his frames with a range of lustrous hues. It’s crisply-shot and sleek, and not dissimilar to the look of certain films by Gaspar Noé or Nicolas Winding Refn, though a broader colour palette is used here. As with both of those directors you could make an argument that there’s more style than substance to Sollima’s film, but also as with those pair there’s a wholehearted commitment made in order to achieve that style that you really have to admire. I’m not suggesting for a minute that Suburra is empty-headed or poorly thought out, though; there is weight and consequence to the story, and it serves as a succinct critique of Italian high society, but this director is clearly at his best when he’s enticing you into this brash, colourful, glitzy underworld, and he delights in revealing the ruthlessness of those who occupy it.
Directed by: Stefano Sollima.
Written by: Stefano Rulli, Sandro Petraglia, Giancarlo De Cataldo, Carol Bonini.
Starring: Pierfrancesco Favino, Alessandro Borghi, Greta Scarano, Claudio Amendola, Giulia Elettra Gorietti, Elio Germano, Adamo Dionisi, Giacomo Ferrara, Jean-Hughes Anglade.
Cinematography: Paolo Carnera.
Editing: Patrizio Marone.
Running Time: 134 minutes.