Untangling the web of politics, sex, drugs and power that weave together crime families is a massive undertaking within film. Much like political dramas, we’ve been met with a myriad of crime family-related films over the years that try to suss out the nature of good and evil in a world so full of murky morals. In the case of Suburra, a book-to-screen adapted ode to the lives of contemporary Roman criminals and politicians, the untangling is tough work for the viewers, however inviting a watch it may be.
Playing out over the course of a week, Suburra tracks the plans of the criminal and political intermediary named “Samurai” (Claudio Amendola). His core plan is to reinvigorate the coastal city of Ostia, working to unify the interests of two criminal outfits run, respectively, Manfredi Anacleti (Adamo Dionisi) and Numero 8 (Alessandro Borghi). Also sucked into the drama is dirty politician Filippo Malgradi (Pierfranceso Favino), whose taste for drugs and illicit affairs gets him in deep trouble with the Anacleti family. Set in 2011, in the days leading up to the resignation of Pope Benedict XV, the action is ignited by Malgradi’s involvement in the death of an underage prostitute. From there, the Anacleti’s get sucked into a vengeance-stricken plot that includes the breaking down of Numero 8’s stronghold in Ostia and, eventually, the plans of greatness being forged by Samurai. The intricacy of plot is present, as well as the range of complicated characters.
The prime hang-up here is not that Suburra is stylishly evocative of contemporary Rome nor that its talented cast is anything less than intriguing. What the film lacks is clarity and focus in its narrative. Often this clarity comes too late (e.g. Samurai reveals his grand plan to Anacleti late in the third act), leaving us to wonder why we’re watching whatever is it that’s taking place. Eschewing one straightforward plot in favour of awkwardly weaving together multiple motivations is clumsily done here; it’s only when the credits roll that you understand what was happening. Suburra’s mostly male cast bring great heat, especially from Favino and Amendola. But the most rewarding performances come from Greta Scarano and Elio Germano. As Viola, Scarano transforms from a bit of arm candy for Numero 8 into a bonfide antihero. She’s raw and fragile in a way that keeps you transfixed. Germano’s turn as Sebastiano is equally as riveting.
Morally conflicted and drawn into the criminal world he was never meant to be a part of, Sebastiano is rife with anxiety in the face of tough decisions about the kind of man he wants to be. Suburra will offer you little in the way of revelation about the possibilities in crime drama. You’ve seen these fights before. You’ve met these crime families before. You’ve seen these albeit one-dimensional characters before. In spite of its good performances, the thin plot and poor narrative construction hold back a potentially excellent film. Let’s hope Sollima learns from this outing as he takes charge of Sicario sequel Soldado.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem