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.”
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.
“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
Politician Filippomalgradi (Pierfrancesco Favino).
Giulia Gorietti plays prostitute Sabrina.
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).