Angels of Evil is a stylish Italian entry into the crime biopic genre which has seen a recent resurgence with the success of the two Mesrine films starring Vincent Cassell. It’s also related to another recent biopic, the mammoth take on the international revolutionary criminal Carlos. But perhaps it is best considered alongside recent fictional crime sagas such as Animal Kingdom, Un prophète and Gomorra.
The central character in Angels of Evil is Renato Vallanzasca, a Milanese street kid born in 1950 who gravitates towards bank robberies and eventually becomes Italy’s ‘most wanted’ partly because he becomes involved with the deaths of police officers. The film begins with one of his many prison terms and then reveals his story in flashback. What is noticeable is the extent to which Vallanzasca’s no doubt partly romanticised biography so closely resembles a typical crime genre narrative. For instance, his gang includes his blood brother from the streets, Enzo, a man who may have learning difficulties but who is certainly a highly dangerous companion, and his ‘little sister’ Antonella from the same background. Renato’s parents remain supportive throughout (it seems barely credible that in one of his breakouts from prison, Renato goes to his parents’ flat).
Generically, the film is very close to Mesrine and Renato is represented as almost a Robin Hood type figure, a generally honourable character who shows up the inadequacies of the police and prison service and appeals directly to the public. I was reminded at times of the idea of the Italian ‘outlaw’ figure and Eric Hobsbawm’s ideas about ‘social bandits’. I haven’t seen Francesco Rosi’s film about the Sicilian bandit Lucky Luciano but I wonder if there are any parallels. Vallanzasca is not a rural bandit of course. But his street origins in the early 1960s do mean that he is an ‘outsider’ and one of the narrative strands in the film deals with his attempts to oust the more established crime families in Milan. I’ve seen criticisms of the film complaining that given its time span (primarily the 1970s and 1980s) it doesn’t say enough about the changing nature of organised crime in Italy. I confess that I couldn’t keep track of all of the action in the film and the various groups from different crime organisations but I did note that Renato (like all ‘old-time’ criminals in genre films) bemoans the young thugs and their mindless violence, believing that he himself was ‘honorable’. I’ve just finished reading an Italian crime fiction novel about the Calabrian criminal families and I was intrigued to see that they get a mention here alongside the Sicilians.
I thought Angels of Evil was an enjoyable (if very bloody) genre film on a par with Mesrine but lacking the intensity of Un prophète or Gomorra. The central performance by Kim Rossi Stuart is its strongest element alongside the two young women played by Valeria Soleano and the Spanish actress Paz Vega (as Antonella). The multi-lingual German actor Moritz Bleibtreu plays one of the gang members. Rossi Stuart also starred in director Michele Placido’s earlier crime film Romanzo criminale (2005) – a very similar package about a criminal gang in Rome in the 1970s which I haven’t seen. Overall I have to agree with a reviewer who suggested that the film reveals a cast and crew who most enjoyed dressing up for the 1970s/80s scenes.
Angels of Evil is that now rare beast – a widescreen ‘popular’ European genre picture that struggles to get even a limited UK release, even though it was part-produced by Fox International Italy and Canal+. Once, such films, often dubbed, received a wide release in the UK. Ironically, Italian domestic production is on something of a roll at the moment scoring multiple hits at home. Angels of Evil opened at No4 in the Italian Top 20 in January 2011 (when 4 out of the Top 5 were Italian ‘domestic features’). When it dropped out of the Top 20 after four weeks the film had taken $3.76 million. It might do quite well when it opens in France in September.