Michele Placido’s Romanzo Criminale is Scarface meets Mean Streets meets Days of Our Lives, with a touch of Sergio Leone. Romanzo Criminale, which translates into “Crime Novel,” is set in 1970s Italy during a time of political turmoil.
Three childhood friends seek to dominate the drug underworld in Rome by forming one the most notorious criminal gangs in the city.Lebanese (Pierfrancesco Favino), Ice (Kim Rossi Stuart) and Dandi (Claudio Santamaria) are the ringleaders of the gang.
Lebanese has delusions of grandeur and compares himself to the great Roman Emperors of the Past, he only trusts one person, Ice. Ice falls in love with Roberta (Jasmine Trinca) and wants out. Dandi buys his prostitute girlfriend Patrizia (Anna Mouglalis) a high-end whorehouse, and the rest is history.
The casting was inconsistent at best. Favino provides an above par performance as Lebanese; he is eloquent and powerful, like a lion guarding his kingdom. Police commissioner Scialoja (Stefani Accorsi), on the other hand, is unconvincing and unbalanced in his interpretation. As for the rest of the bad boys, most of them look like preppy runway models rather than notorious, cold-blooded criminals.
What sets Romanzo Criminale apart from any other gangster movie is the intricate plot. Placido has added something to the traditional five point mob movie formula of hoodlums, guns, drugs, sex and blood.
Placido has created a new type of gangster flick by adding a political dimension. Italian terrorism (The Red Brigades), national identity and government corruption are themes that are successfully exploited by Placido in this film.
Although Romanzo Criminale takes gigantic strides in redefining the gangster genre, it gets all soaped up in certain scenes involving Ice and Roberta. The dialogue between the two lovebirds makes those scenes seem like a bad midday Italian soap opera.
The film however is great at capturing the essence of Italy in the 1970s. It’s stylish in the tradition of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and its cast is outright elegant. Original footage of the discovery of Italian politician Aldo Moro’s corpse and of the Italian National team’s World Cup triumph adds a facet of veracity to the movie.
Overall, the film’s tenacious design proves a success. Hollywood-style editing and an excellent score propel Romanzo Criminale above most Italian films of this genre. It has all the makings of a gangster epic.
With 15 international awards won so far however, an almost empty theatre at the 9:30 p.m. screening on opening day in Montreal might mean Romanzo Criminale is destined to flop outside the Italian box office, which is truly unfortunate.