Review of the Movie Suburra
Five minutes in, we feel like going to see Stefano Sollima’s version of La Grande Bellezza; a loud party at a lush villa where the rich and famous are drinking and dancing and kissing in a neon-light fantasy. Another glimpse at the “one-percent” of Roman society.
Then, fairly quickly, we realize that this film might have more in common with the ugliness of Camorra than the glam of The Great Beauty. Throw in a corrupt cardinal hiding out in The Vatican, and now it also recalls The Godfather Part III.
But no, it’s entirely its own movie, and a damn good one.
Life in The Burbs
The name of the movie, Suburra, refers to a neighborhood on the outskirts of ancient Rome, which is the origin of our word “suburb.” It is an evolution of the Latin “sub-urba,” as the language was moving towards the Volgare. Clusters of consonants like RB turned into RR (or MN into MM, etc.), in a process known as “assimilazione e raddoppiamento.” Anyway…
This zone was a swampy area between the Viminal and Esquiline hills. Today this neighborhood could hardly be more central, located near the Cavour metro stop, so it’s difficult to imagine it as the “the suburbs” back then.
This is where the politicians and the wealthy class would go “slumming” through the murky streets to access their unspoken vices, and consort with criminal elements to do their dirty work. The shadowy world of thieves and prostitutes and assassins for hire.
Fast forward to 2011 and not much has changed in The Eternal City according to Sollima, except that the burbs now extend further out, all the way to the beach town of Ostia.
The plot is very loosely framed around actual events that occurred during early November of ’11, when Berlusconi stepped down from his position as Prime Minister of Italy under enormous public pressure from both within the country, and from the European Union. So there is some factual basis for the story, although it is mostly fiction. Probably. Maybe. Well, you decide.
There is also this allusion to the apocalypse, and a torrential rainstorm that lasts throughout the movie—seven days and seven nights, to be precise. To bolster this claim, the filmmakers also try to add the abdication of Pope Benedict as a further omen that announces the end-of-days scenario.
I had to look it up to refresh my memory, but this unusual act by the pope actually occurred in February of 2013, about 14 months after Berlusconi’s resignation. So while I can’t speak to their alleged connection, I can say that the two events were not contemporaneous, as suggested in the film.
It’s wrong to think that Italy is in a severe financial crisis. Consumer spending hasn’t decreased at all.
This is a quote from one of the main characters, Senator Filippo Malgradi, played by Pierfrancesco Favino. But it also smacks of a real soundbite from Berlusconi around this time who infamously said, “What crisis? I look around Rome and all the restaurants are full!”
Malgradi is an upper-level politician who moves seamlessly between the two lives he leads: the life he presents to the world as a family man and respected politician; and his other persona, which enjoys smoking crack cocaine while in the company of naked women who are young enough to be his daughters.
There’s one scene where he’s standing butt-naked on a third-floor balcony above Piazza del Popolo in the middle of this biblical deluge, pissing down on the street below. What to make of that, I wonder?
I thought either the director was saying, “Look! These politicians, at their core, are just as brutti as the street criminals.” Or else he was animating the metaphor of, “Politicians are always pissing on us while trying to convince us that it’s raining.”
Malgradi is also well-acquainted with some unsavory elements in the Mafia, including a character known as the “The Samurai,” played by Claudio Amendola. No big surprise here, as this also mirrors real-world accusations of high-ranking members of Italian parliament being deeply intertwined with the malavita. Inevitably, the two worlds collide, launching the story into a descending spiral of chaos where every little turn leads to a greater tragedy. Each character is caught up in his or her own self-made tempest with no positive outcomes in sight.
The plot is intricate and complex, but not difficult to follow. The director did a great job of keeping the overlapping storylines clear and tight inside the 2 hour running time. (It’s technically 2 hours and 15 minutes, but there are at least 15 minutes of credits at the end, just so you know.)
If think your Italian is pretty good, but want to sharpen your romanaccio, you only need to take lessons from the character Manfredi (played by Adamo Dionisi) and his family of “burini” (“cafoni” in Italian; or boorish/uncouth in English). This guy is the thug of the film, but he is also identified as the “gypsy,” which I suppose implies that his brood is from Eastern Europe and not Italy.
I wonder if that was a conscious choice by the writer/director because conversely, the Italian gangster, “The Samurai,” is portrayed as having excellent manners and better taste in clothes. Hmm…
This film project was unique in its production. It was a combined Italian-French effort, financed by RAI and Netflix. The distribution was also unusual, in that it simultaneously premiered in Italian movie theaters and was made available for online streaming in the US and Latin America on the same day. The movie version will be available on Italian Netflix in May 2016, and Netflix has also commissioned a 10-part TV series based on the film to premiere globally in 2017.
Does everybody get their just desserts in the end? Well, you’ll have to watch and decide for yourself. Or you can wait until the TV series premieres and invite these characters into your suburban home on a weekly basis. You’ll never think of life in the suburbs the same way again.