For those suffering withdrawal symptoms from their weekly diet of Nordic noir, here comes the next fix of subtitled Euro-crime to keep you sated until the new series of The Killing. Although this time the temperature rises a degree or two, even if the tone remains resolutely – and reassuringly – dark.
Set in Rome between 1977 and 1992, Romanzo Criminale has been an Italian television sensation, based on the exploits of a real-life criminal street gang. La Banda della Magliana was a mob of fearless, ultraviolent suburban youths who became, in the words of the judge, Giancarlo de Cataldo, who first turned them into a crime novel, “a real criminal power”.
They collected money and imposed a Mafia-style law on the Italian capital with a ruthlessness that made Tony Soprano look like a pussycat.
The novel was first made into a film, but the television series that followed has aired in Italy to rapturous acclaim. One broadsheet called it “perhaps the best series ever made in Italy”, while another insisted that “it’s the only Italian series of which we can be proud… that we can export abroad”.
Opening in 1977, the drama is sharply written, beautifully shot, funny, violent and political. The gang members – with names that translate as Lebanese, Ice, Toothpick, Terrible and Satan – are determined to “take Rome” with the help of corrupt cops, and the capital is in turmoil. These were Italy’s “years of lead” when student protesters fought the police and the Red Brigades tried to destabilise Italy.
It’s a compelling backdrop for a series that’s brutally honest about Italy’s bloody criminal past.
“People outside Italy probably think it’s made up,” says Stefano Sollima, who directed both the seasons of Romanzo Criminale that have been made. “It was difficult at times to believe that the story was based on true events. Here’s a group of naughty, naive boys trying to take over Rome. It’s kind of preposterous. So you have to put their actions into context by showing the political and social tensions, the terrorism.”
Vinicio Marchioni, who plays cold-blooded gang leader Il Freddo (Ice), tells Radio Times he found the dialect incredibly hard work, but loved the 1970s clothes, the cars, the guns. Until, that is, the two-year shoot was finally drawing to a close.
“For the last two months, I was having nightmares,” says Marchioni. “I was waking up four times a night because I was dreaming about blood, murder, violence. I couldn’t get the dark side out of my head.”
Sollima, however, has no regrets. He is ecstatic that Romanzo Criminale was acquired by US cable channel HBO and is now showing in the UK for the first time. “We worked hard to make an exceptional show, but it was impossible to imagine the series having so much success outside Italy. Impossible! When HBO bought the series, I laughed in disbelief. Scorsese’s country has bought our series! And England is the home of so much television that I love.”
Romanzo Criminale is compelling, but for those who become hooked, beware: there will be no third season. Sollima is adamant that it’s best to quit while you’re ahead. “I’m happy we closed Romanzo Criminale without exploiting it too much.” He laughs. “We made two series, they were successful, boom! Finished!
Romanzo Criminale starts tonight at 9pm, Sky Arts 1.