British TV was once the envy of the world. Now it is a mix of reality shows, ageing celebrity comebacks and repeats from yesteryear. That doesn’t leave you, the viewer, with a lot to get excited about does it? In recent years, however, people have turned to subtitled European faire for their fix of fresh, gritty shows. The Scandanavians have given us The Killing and The Bridge, the French have delivered The Returned andBraquo. Italy gave us Inspector Montalbano, but they also exported this little gem, undoubtably the best of the lot. The European version ofThe Wire…step forward Romanzo Criminale.
Romanzo Criminale (“Crime Novel”) is an Italian television series based on a novel by judge Giancarlo De Cataldo, and adapted from the 2005 film of the same name. The first series quickly achieved cult status in Italy, with the second series also proving popular. It quickly achieved the same status in the United Kingdom with the programme being aired on Sky Arts.
The series is set from 1977-89 and follows the rise of a criminal gang in Rome to a near monopoly of the city’s heroin trade. The gang is led by three old friends, Lebanese (Francesco Montanari), Freddo (Vinicio Marchioni) and Dandi (Alessandro Roja).
The plotline is based on the real crime group of the era, Banda della Magliana. The story focuses on Lebanese (also known as Libano), who we first meet during a bungled lorry robbery. Running his gang from a clapped-out caravan and frustrated by his high-risk, low-reward criminality, he dreams of becoming a big player like Terrible, the city’s major crime warlord.
Libano and Dandi link their gang with another local small time crook Freddo, and they hatch a plan to abduct Baron Rosellini, a wealthy aristocrat whom Libano’s parents worked for. The kidnapping offers huge rewards for the gang. The plot ends tragically, but they get their ransom money.
Despite tensions between the rival outfits, Libano convinces the gang not to blow the money on hookers and fast cars, but to reinvest in further criminal enterprises – namely drugs. Commissioner Scialoja (Marco Bocci) goes after the gang, becoming obsessed along the way by a beautiful call girl, Patrizia (Daniela Virgilio) (the girlfriend of Dandi).
The gang has to deal with the Camorra and Sicilian Mafia (who supply heroin to the gang), the police, led by Commissioner Scialoja and the Italian secret services.
Their progress and changes in leadership (Libano is followed by his cohorts Freddo and Dandi) are inseparably intertwined with the dark history of modern Italy: terrorism, kidnappings and corruption at the highest levels of government.
Through political murders, spectacular bombings and high-profile kidnappings Libano proves himself through a series of brutal crimes. He makes valuable connections among corrupt cops and politicians, and in the Secret Service, which seeks to enlist the gang to destabilize the government and provoke a right-wing coup. Scialoja is seemingly the one man not in the pay or pocket of the Mafia or the corrupt State, and is determined to bring the ferocious gang to justice, whatever the cost to himself or to the rules of the law.
The first season reaches it’s climax with Libano seeing himself as the undisputed ‘King of Rome’. But while he increasingly distrusts everyone and becomes more paranoid, his thirst for power is never truly satisfied and his demonic look intensifies. Flashbacks and dream sequences superbly portray a character that is spurred on by vengeance and fear, while the ongoing story shows how he came to dominate in a time of disorganisation, terror and corruption.
A dramatic end to the first season, which stayed faithful to the film, paved the way for Season 2. This takes up the action directly after the game-changing events of that first season finale. As the major players regroup and rethink their strategies the scene shifts to the early 80s. The cars and fashions may have changed, but the drug game stays the same….making more money means more bloodshed.The show serves as both entertainment and a history lesson. As a viewer you go through their journey with them, the emotional heart of the show remains with Libano, Freddo and Dandi with their crazy plan to take over the capital and it is hard not to side with the guys with the impossible dream.The real Banda della Magliana were a vicious gang that set out to rule the criminal underworld of 1970s Rome. While Naples and Sicily were the stomping grounds of the Camorra and the Mafia, Rome’s criminal network was a patchwork of small gangs, and the Banda set out to be top gang in the capital.
While De Cataldo’s novel is inspired by the real Banda della Magliana, names and details have been changed. One of the factors that makes the TV series so compelling is that this classic story of the gang’s rise is little known outside of Italy.
During the 1970s the country was a frightening place, one of police brutality, political murders, bombings, kidnappings and secret service plots against the government. The story of how the gang became involved in these disturbing affairs, filmed on the Roman streets with a soundtrack of classic 70s pop, prompted the leading daily newspaper La Stampa to call the show “the best series ever produced in Italy”.
The recent influx of subtitled programmes on British TV has shown that a lot of fantastic shows are out there, and people’s perceptions of watching a subtitled programme have changed, for the better, along the way.
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