Suburra (★★★★, cert 18, 135 mins), an Italian neo-noir film set in Rome in 2011, should come with a health warning: not for the squeamish or faint-hearted. It graphically displays the expansive underbelly of civic and political corruption, from Mafia murders to drug-fuelled orgies involving politicians and prostitutes. One could not, however, accuse it of ignoring the consequences of wrongdoing: indeed, there are long stretches when it seems to be bursting with nothing but consequences.
The lavish opening scene of wealthy Italians at play resurrects the lush hedonism of Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza, but Stefano Sollima (who also directed the Italian television series Gomorrah) quickly slides into a more vicious pool of risk and threat just below Rome’s shiny surfaces.
The Suburra of the title was an area of ancient Rome known for its red-light district, where high society met low life – and vice versa. Arrogantly straddling those two worlds in modern times is Filippo Malgradi (Pierfrancesco Favino), an Italian MP involved in a lucrative scheme to turn the Ostia seaside neighbourhood of Rome into a new Las Vegas.
Malgradi is close to a powerful criminal named “Samurai” (Claudio Amendola), who not only represents the interests of mob bosses excited by Ostia’s possibilities but also has a key contact in the Vatican bank (the fictional action unfurls in the years prior to Pope Francis’s determined reforms). But when Malgradi’s hotel-room drugs tryst with two prostitutes – one of whom is a minor – results in a tragedy, a headstrong gypsy youth, Spadino Anacleti (Giacomo Ferrara), is called in to help cover up the evidence. What follows leads to a spiral of blackmail, bloodshed and revenge.
Sollima succeeds in the tricky technical task of seamlessly interlocking a number of stories, while the quality of the acting is compelling: each criminal character has perfected a unique style of intimidation. Favino, as Malgradi, at first wears an expression suggesting a limitless sense of entitlement, the carnal greed of a seasoned risk-taker who believes that nothing can come between him and his desires. It is only later that he realises he has opened the door to a restless darkness with the potential to invade his luxurious villa and destroy him and his small family. That darkness is most palpable in the elementally vengeful form of Manfredi Anacleti, the violent patriarch of a gypsy family seeking respect among the mainstream Mafia, played with meaty menace by Adamo Dionisi.
As the bodycount grows higher, and wild tempers outstrip even the dictates of self-interest, the landscape of Suburra begins to resemble something from Titus Andronicus. Still, the brutality is tempered by the elegance of its cinematography: Rome in a rainstorm, neon gleaming, has rarely looked so beautiful and so bad.