With Gomorrah, Ro­manzo Crim­i­nale and now Suburra, Ste­fano Sol­lima is the god­fa­ther of Ital­ian gang­ster movies and TV. Crime Scene finds out how the di­rec­tor made the Neapoli­tan mafia go global.


Ital­ian di­rec­tor Ste­fano Sol­lima takes us into the seamy side of Rome.

Hav­ing shot two se­ries of his ac­claimed Ital­ian ’70s and ’80s-set gang­ster drama Ro­manzo Crim­i­nale, Ste­fano Sol­lima is a di­rec­tor with a strong sense of his own coun­try’s dark past. But that still doesn’t pre­pare Crime Scene for the les­son in Latin and the seamier side of an­cient his­tory as he ex­plains the ti­tle of his gang­land movie, Suburra.

“It comes from the Latin, and it was a small neigh­bour­hood at the foot of the hill that was the base for the aris­toc­racy in an­cient Rome,” Sol­lima tells Crime Scene. “This place was a sort of ghetto where you had a pub or tav­ern, a place where you could find a hooker, and so this was a poor place but close to the rich­est part of the an­cient city. And, of course, a lot of peo­ple from the hills – the rich­est peo­ple, the aris­toc­racy, the politi­cians – all went to this place to have fun, to drink and

to have sex with a hooker. In Italy, Suburra means a place where you can have fun, where you can do busi­ness in a hid­den, se­cret, for­bid­den place.”

Mary Beard couldn’t have ex­plained this cor­ner of an­cient Rome any bet­ter. Sol­lima’s vi­o­lent po­lit­i­cal thriller sug­gests not much has changed in 2,000 years, as or­gan­ised crime flour­ishes in this his­toric district in the shadow of the Colos­seum. Set in 2011, amid a fi­nan­cial cri­sis, Suburra (based on a novel by Carlo Bonini and Gian­carlo de Cataldo) is a pow­er­ful cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence that por­trays deep-seated cor­rup­tion con­nect­ing the mafia, politi­cians and even the top of the Catholic church in Rome.

“You can’t imag­ine that the church and the un­der­world are work­ing to­gether, but Suburra is a place where dif­fer­ent pow­ers can meet,” ex­plains Sol­lima. “We have the politi­cians, the ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal power of the church, we have the un­der­world, which

It was im­por­tant to cre­ate a dif­fer­ent kind of gang­ster, some­one anony­mous

of course is a huge part, in con­trol of the city. So the mix of all th­ese pow­ers is what I be­lieve is re­ally scary.”

The ab­sence of moral­ity – from the de­praved politi­cian Filippo Mal­gradi (Pier­francesco Favino) to the coolly ef­fi­cient mafia fixer Sa­mu­rai (Clau­dio Amendola) – does make for a chill­ing an­ti­dote to the ro­man­tic view of Rome. Cru­cially, though, it’s also a grip­ping thriller. Set to a pound­ing score by elec­tronic artist M83, Suburra is a sen­sory over­load of neon-lit bars and night­clubs, sex and drug binges, and stun­ning set­piece ac­tion scenes. “I love Michael Mann,” says Sol­lima, and it shows in the in­tri­cate su­per­mar­ket shootout that ri­vals the di­rec­tor of Heat. “It was a su­per-com­pli­cated thing to shoot. But I like it, be­cause it’s one of the few mo­ments where you re­alise that all th­ese dif­fer­ent worlds can some­times col­lide, in the mid­dle of real life.”

Like the bril­liant and bru­tal TV se­ries Gomorrah, based on the non-fic­tion ex­posé that forced au­thor Roberto Sa­viano into hid­ing from the Camorra clans, Suburra

has a ba­sis in real­ity. The sto­ry­line about the plan to trans­form the wa­ter­front district of Os­tia into Rome’s Las Ve­gas – ar­ranged on be­half of mafia fam­i­lies, with the col­lu­sion of politi­cians on the pay­roll – is based on an ac­tual scan­dal. “It’s in­spired by a true story,” con­firms Sol­lima. “Ev­ery­thing you have in the movie is in­spired by the truth – but it is also a story, a mix­ture of real­ity and fic­tion.”

po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions

De­spite the no­to­ri­ous be­hav­iour of cer­tain real-life Ital­ian politi­cians, Mal­gradi is – hope­fully – an ex­ag­ger­a­tion of a cor­rupt leg­is­la­tor. As well as uri­nat­ing on the cit­i­zens of Rome from his ho­tel balcony dur­ing a down­pour (a pretty per­fect po­lit­i­cal metaphor), he in­dulges in hard drugs with pros­ti­tutes. When he’s ex­posed to black­mail from a drug dealer, his ef­forts to have the low-grade mob­ster warned off re­sult in un­in­tended con­se­quences: a war be­tween ri­val gangs and a threat to the Os­tia de­vel­op­ment. “In Suburra, what we por­trayed is how some politi­cians are not work­ing for us, but they are work­ing for them­selves,” says Sol­lima.

Suburra also serves as a con­clu­sion to his Rome crime tril­ogy, fol­low­ing two sea­sons of Ro­manzo Crim­i­nale, from 2008 to 2010. Asked about his ad­her­ence to the gang­ster genre, the di­rec­tor says it’s an ef­fec­tive way for an Ital­ian film or se­ries to reach a global au­di­ence. “You can be lo­cal – talk­ing about your city, your life and your cul­ture – but by us­ing this genre, a gang­ster movie, you can also make it ap­peal­ing for an international au­di­ence,” he ex­plains. “It’s like a com­mon lan­guage.”

Sol­lima be­comes an­i­mated when talk­ing about cin­ema, which runs in the fam­ily: his late fa­ther, Ser­gio Sol­lima, was a writer and di­rec­tor who made spaghetti west­erns and crime films such as Vi­o­lent City star­ring Charles Bron­son. “I’m a con­sumer of films, I have been since I was a kid,” says Sol­lima. “I’ve been watch­ing movies all my life and I have a lot of ref­er­ences.”

That ed­u­ca­tion shows in Suburra, which can ham­mer you with the re­lent­less vi­o­lence and machismo of the gang­ster movie, but is also stylish and sus­pense­ful. In one scene, when the Os­tia gang leader known as Numero 8 (Alessan­dro Borghi, be­low) is be­ing hunted down, his junkie girl­friend Vi­ola (Greta Scarano) has to at­tempt her es­cape through the fog of drugs; it’s un­bear­ably tense and mas­ter­fully di­rected. “I al­ways try to be with the char­ac­ters, even if I don’t like them,” Sol­lima tells Crime Scene. “It’s not just ten­sion, it’s em­pa­thy, even if I dis­agree with them, even if I don’t love them. So, for ex­am­ple, in this scene it’s like you are in the mind of Vi­ola, and of course it’s a blocked mind – she can’t act, she can’t re­act to any­thing.” Suburra is also pop­u­lated by typ­i­cally men­ac­ing fig­ures, such as the bear-like gang­ster Man­fredi Ana­cleti (Adamo Dion­isi) who clashes with the Os­tia crew. “Now it’s World War III against the gyp­sies,” pre­dicts the tat­tooed, shaven­headed Numero 8. Yet the fixer char­ac­ter of Sa­mu­rai is a twist on the mafia don: he’s al­most in­vis­i­ble and rides around Rome on a scooter. “He’s re­spected, his name makes peo­ple scared,” says Sol­lima. “So for me it was im­por­tant to cre­ate a dif­fer­ent kind of gang­ster, be­cause if you are a guy who can deal with a politi­cian, or deal with the church, a guy like this is a nor­mal per­son – it’s some­one who’s anony­mous.” The film has al­ready been a hit in Italy, and there are plans for a 10-part spin-off se­ries

based on the book, de­scribed by its au­thors as “a jour­ney into the black heart of Rome”. The TV se­ries will de­but on Net­flix in 2017, though Sol­lima says he’s not di­rect­ing and has an­other project in de­vel­op­ment. “It’s based on a Roberto Sa­viano book, Zero Zero Zero, and it’s on narco traf­fic and the lo­gis­ti­cal side,” he says. “We are writ­ing it. It will be a mini-se­ries, eight episodes, for Stu­dio Canal.”

Sol­lima and Sa­viano have al­ready formed a win­ning part­ner­ship on Gomorrah, which re­cently re­turned for a sec­ond se­ries. The TV show isn’t di­rectly con­nected to the 2008 film of the book, though it’s an equally hard­hit­ting drama­ti­sa­tion that ex­plores the hi­er­ar­chy of a Neapoli­tan crime fam­ily, from the gaudy glam­our of Don Pi­etro Savas­tano’s fam­ily home adorned with a large fam­ily por­trait in oils, to young men and even chil­dren em­broiled in drugs and street crime.

For fans of shows like The Wire and The So­pra­nos it’s es­sen­tial view­ing – is the di­rec­tor proud to have to made an Ital­ian se­ries that matches the best US crime drama? “Yeah, ab­so­lutely,” he says. “I love to shoot what I would love to watch.” That was quite a se­ri­ous un­der­tak­ing for the sec­ond se­ries, in­volv­ing 32 weeks of film­ing in Italy, Ger­many and Costa Rica, with 200 ac­tors, 3,500 ex­tras and a crew of 600. The Costa Ri­can con­nec­tion is in­trigu­ing: Don Pi­etro’s dopey son Genny (Sal­va­tore Es­pos­ito) was ex­posed to hor­rific vi­o­lence dur­ing a spell with the Savas­tano fam­ily’s South Amer­i­can al­lies, though it re­mained off screen in Se­ries 1.

sight see­ing

“It’s like we used a wider lens, just to un­der­stand a lit­tle bit bet­ter,” Sol­lima says of the lo­ca­tions where the Neapoli­tan clan’s ten­ta­cles reach. “It’s the nat­u­ral fol­low­ing of the story and of the char­ac­ters. By por­tray­ing not just Se­condigliano [ in Naples], but by show­ing how they work around Rome, or in Ger­many, it is an­other side on the Camorra. And of course it’s an evo­lu­tion of the char­ac­ters. It was a huge job… I think you will be sur­prised.”

With­out giv­ing any­thing away, the events of the open­ing episode of Se­ries 2 are def­i­nitely a sur­prise. But fa­mil­iar char­ac­ters do re­turn, in­clud­ing Don Pi­etro (For­tu­nato Cer­lino), who was in­dis­posed for a large part of Se­ries 1 and is hid­ing out in Ger­many in this se­ries. “I’ve rested way too long,” says the griz­zled gang­ster, who still looks men­ac­ing in a track­suit. His son, Genny, is in­jured, while Don Pi­etro’s former pro­tege, Ciro (Marco D’amore), a sur­vivor known as “L’im­mor­tale” (the im­mor­tal), is now a ma­jor player al­lied with the bru­tal yet stylish Sal­va­tore Conte (Marco Pal­vetti). Ciro re­alises that he needs to stage an au­da­cious raid to buy his way into the big league. Like Suburra, Gomorrah is a wor­ry­ing por­trayal of an Italy where the po­lice never seem to trou­ble the gang­sters.

Af­ter the vi­o­lent fi­nale to the first se­ries, Sol­lima agrees that Se­ries 2 will bring a reck­on­ing. “Yeah, of course, be­cause what we had in the first sea­son was a huge con­flict at the end be­tween Ciro and Genny,” he says. “In the be­gin­ning, they were two friends. At the end of Sea­son 1, ev­ery­one be­trayed each other. So I think it will be tragedy again.”

While some crit­ics have ques­tioned the lack of re­deem­ing fea­tures in the char­ac­ters, Sol­lima in­sists his clan mem­bers are hu­man and be­liev­able. “Even if you hate them, and they are bas­tards with­out any moral­ity, you are still in­ter­ested in them be­cause of their hu­man­ity,” he tells Crime Scene. As for the real-life crim­i­nals who in­spired the se­ries, there has been no pub­lic re­sponse. “We had more re­ac­tion from the politi­cians, it’s prob­a­bly the rea­son I de­cided to make Suburra,” laughs Sol­lima.

Yet for all the vi­o­lence and im­moral­ity that roused the ire of Ital­ian politi­cians, the Rome-based di­rec­tor does not be­lieve Gomorrah is an en­tirely neg­a­tive por­trayal of Naples – and the pro­duc­ers have worked hard to draw on lo­cal tal­ent in one of the poor­est ar­eas of Italy. “I love Naples, my wife is Neapoli­tan,” he says.

The city makes for an equally colour­ful and des­o­late ur­ban back­drop to Gomorrah, which has al­ready sold to 130 coun­tries and is only go­ing to get big­ger. At a Se­ries 2 launch at the Rome Opera House, Sky Italia con­firmed it plans at least two more se­ries, though Sol­lima tells Crime Scene he may not be on board to di­rect be­cause of his com­mit­ment to mak­ing Zero Zero Zero.

Off the back of a film and ma­jor TV se­ries, he’s also plan­ning to take a break from film­ing – and then there’s his 50th birth­day to cel­e­brate in Rome shortly af­ter our in­ter­view. “I’m go­ing out to have a su­per-cool din­ner with my two kids,” says Sol­lima. But you sus­pect the god­fa­ther of Ital­ian crime will be back among his fic­tional gang­land fam­i­lies be­fore long.

I love to shoot what I would love to watch

Gi­u­lia Gori­etti plays pros­ti­tute Sab­rina.

Politi­cian Filip­po­ma­l­gradi (Pier­francesco Favino).

Suburra opens on 24 June. Gomorrah Se­ries 2 is on Sky At­lantic now and re­leased on DVD on 1 Au­gust. Gomorrah’s Ciro (Marco D’amore, kneel­ing) gets roughed up by Sal­va­tore Conte (Marco Pal­vetti).

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