The crisis in UK distribution is such that a hugely enjoyable and accomplished genre film like Suburra played for just one week at HOME in Manchester and was hard to find on other screens in the North of England. It is showing, if only for two or three screenings, at various venues in July (see this website for details) and it is currently available on VOD, but it won’t generate the same buzz that might have come from a 70 screen release. Presumably small distributor Kaleidoscope has been more focused on DVD/online. It’s a long film (132 mins) but I never felt the pace flagging. It’s epic in scale, has wonderful settings, terrific performances and superb cinematography plus great editing and a stunning electronic score by French duo M83. It’s far better than most Hollywood crime films and I’m sure that subtitles wouldn’t get in the way for most audiences. See it on the biggest screen you can find – we watched it on Screen 1 at HOME, an unexpected treat.
‘Suburra’ or ‘Subura’ was the name given to a district of Rome in antiquity – a ‘red light district’, home to a criminal underworld. Stefano Sollima (director of the Romanzo Criminale and Gomorra TV series) uses the title to set up his contemporary mixture of crime and political thriller. The narrative is presented in a series of chapters based on the days leading up to the ‘apocalypse’ in 2011. Later we realise that this ‘catastrophe’ will be the end point of a complex network of conflicts and inter-relationships involving Italian politics, leading criminal families and the Vatican. The ‘inciting incident’ is the action of a senior politician with unforeseen consequences which gradually unravel the ‘stability’ created by the criminal fixer known as ‘the Samurai’ – who has previously kept warring families apart. As an early symbol of what is to follow, Sollima shows the naked politician literally pissing on the city of Rome from a balcony in the city centre during a torrential downpour. This extraordinary image is the first of several scenes which delight the eye while leading us deeper into the corruption at the heart of the city.
The narrative offers us five major characters. As well as the politician we meet the heads of two criminal families plus the pimp Sebastiano and the Samurai. This latter is a man who at first appears like a retired middle manager before we see the steel in his gaze and realise the intelligence in his strategies. By contrast, Sebastiano first appears as a weak man who might easily break and his little moustache made me think of the fascisti. The two heads of the criminal families are very different and though both are stereotypical in appearance, they are also distinctive. The interior décor of the houses occupied by the Anacleti family will stay with me I’m sure. The Anacletis appear to be Roma – the subtitles refer to gypsies but at least on one occasion they are abused as ‘Jewish’. Any help with this identification is appreciated. The second ‘family’ is represented by ‘Number 8’, who has taken over from his father, and his partner Viola, a drug addict – who turns out like many of the other characters to be not what we might have expected at first sight. The casting of the film is terrific. I often find it difficult to distinguish individual characters in crime genre films, but not in this film.
The narrative is adapted from a novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo and Carlo Bonini, who were also involved in writing the script with Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli. The story appears to use elements from a major criminal investigation which was reported in 2014 in Rome involving leading politicians and organised crime and seen as part of ‘Mafia Capital’ – a longer investigation into organised crime in Rome (see this news article). The most obvious element used in the film is the ‘zoning’ application for a ‘change of use’ in the run-down seaside town of Ostia where Romans have traditionally taken holidays. Silvio Berlusconi resigned as Italy’s Prime Minister in October 2011 and Pope Benedict abdicated in February 2013 – two other events which may have been influences in constructing the fictional narrative.
Stefano Sollima is best known for his television work and it is perhaps not surprising that Netflix, looking to expand in Italy, have already commissioned a series based on the same material. (Netflix is also distributing this film in the US.) It is interesting to reflect on whether Suburra is in any way ‘televisual’ as a film. There have always been two perceived major differences between ‘cinema films’ and TV films/series – at least in the US and UK. (In smaller language film cultures such as Sweden the distinction is less clear with some projects switching easily between the two.) One difference focuses on aesthetics – cinema films have been argued to be more ‘cinematic’ because of better colour definition (and therefore more scope to create lighting and tonal effects) as well as a greater range of compositions with more long shots and shooting with depth of field etc. The second difference concerns narrative complexity, the ‘richness’ of the themes and the artistic integrity of the direction. Up until relatively recently, television drama was often criticised because of its association with ‘soap opera’ or its propensity for sensationalised ‘real-life’ social dramas – the ‘TV movie of the week’ syndrome. Both these criticisms also included the prosaic camerawork, editing, set design etc. But now the argument seems to have reversed and cable television productions in the US have now attained a new level of ‘quality’. The questions of aesthetics have gone thanks to similar digital production methods in cinema and TV (and new standards for ‘home viewing’) and the acceptance of ‘long-form narratives’ on TV has meant that narrative complexity, richness of theme and artistry now resides with TV productions. Suburra is an Italian-French co-production with independent Italian production company Cattleya and Italian PSB TV company RAI joined by French independent La Chauve Souris.
After a single viewing, I’m not sure I’m able to comment on the aesthetics of Suburra. I can only say that I did notice the use of close-ups (of fascinating faces) more here than I usually do in modern films (and this was in 2.35:1). Mostly, however, I noted the camerawork and direction and editing which presented not only marvellously choreographed crowd scenes but the highly stylised scenes noted above. This is a complex narrative but I think it would feel very different seen in weekly episodes. I’ve never ‘binge-watched’ more than two or three episodes of any serial and perhaps if that’s what you do with boxed sets, the narrative will be similar. The film is only 130 minutes – presumably the Netflix version will be 360 minutes or more? Personally, I prefer films in cinemas. My viewing partner was equally taken with Suburra. We both breathed out a ‘Wow!’ at the end of the film and we agreed that this is a very dark film but with a satisfying twist at the end which perhaps offers some kind of moral commentary. ‘Nuff said, I think.
UK Official trailer (it reveals some of the major incidents):