Romanzo Criminale

When turning on the TV in a hotel room in Italy, the primary experience, amidst the welcome clips of football, are old men in suits, with cheesy smiles, presenting alongside much younger women with little on, looking for cheap laughs from a studio audience. It is a reoccurring theme on every visit that does little to inspire confidence in Italian made television. However, ‘Romanzo Criminale’, which has been hailed as the greatest Italian programme ever made, is the counter to that, and television series of substance in its own right.

Shown on Sky Arts, it has the benefit of being broadcast with no adverts, and is drama of the highest quality; beautifully shot, it touches on different genres within the framework of crime and corruption thriller. As the title suggests, it is based in Rome, but also briefly goes north during the series, just as the initial setting of the ‘70s (immediately identifiable through the excellent score, set design and costume) spans into the eighties.

Based on a film of the same name from 2005, which itself was an adaption from a book based on real-life events of Italy’s not too distant past, the television serial is able to explore the make-up of five lead characters, while with a dramatic ending, sets up a second season that will take us into the early nineties.

The main story is of three childhood friends who move into organised crime that leads them to being virtually untouchable in Rome. They collaborate with spies, the far-right and other criminal gangs, perhaps portraying a modern day analogy for the over-reaching power of an element of Italian politics. The corruption that is pervasive in ‘Romanzo Criminale’ makes for a great thriller, as well as meaning that while the gang think they are running Rome, they are still seen as puppets by forces with greater power.

The gang is led by the megalomaniac and largely nasty, misanthropic Libanese, whose only loyalty his to his mother, and his two fellow gang founders, Freddo and Dandi: a loyalty which is even tested as paranoia and cocaine take increasing control. It is a brutal regime, which as one disenfranchised gang member defiantly points out, is based on a policy of feeding their slaves crumbs, while putting bullets in the head of those that oppose them.

As authorities with vested interests turn a blind eye while always looking to cream off the top, the gang are doggedly pursued by a crusading cop who comes from an idealistic background, glory-hunting as an almost lone-ranger in a largely corrupt police force and legislative system.

The gang and the cop, Scialoja, become further tied with the link of Patrizia, an intelligent prostitute, whose life seemingly improves due to her association with the gang, but whose affections lie elsewhere. In common with Freddo and a number of the gang members throughout the years in the first season, ideally she wants to escape from their clutches, and live her own life.

But while Libanese increasingly distrusts everyone, his thirst for power is never sated and his demonic look intensifies. Flashbacks and dream sequences superbly portray a character that is spurred on by vengeance and fear, while the ongoing story shows how he came to dominate in a time of disorganisation, terror and corruption.

It is an excellent production by Sky Italia, touching on big issues that are still relevant, while being incredibly engrossing and stylish at the same time. A programme that is sometimes as dark as the wonderful lighting in the gang’s den, it is lit up with intrigue, a great soundtrack and some external shots that stay in the memory. The stables and horse racing bring to mind The Sopranos, while sojourns in fields via drives on countryside lanes recall The Godfather. But Romanzo Criminale is a mafia drama that has a deep story of its own, in the eternal city where a character reminds us seven previous gangs had failed before.

The second and supposed final season, that will finish the tale off, will hopefully be on Sky Arts again, commercial break free, and sooner rather than later.


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