Romanzo Criminale is an Italian phenomenon, arguably the finest series Italy has ever produced. Set in Rome’s simmering criminal underbelly, it’s based on the exploits of the notorious real-life gang, La Banda Della Magliana, or as they were known by their street names, Ice, Toothpick, Satan, Terrible and their leader, Lebanese. (The names don’t do them justice. I mean, these are seriously bad dudes. But Toothpick? C’mon!)
Anyway, in the late 70’s and early 80’s this hothead crew with fabulous facial hair upped their stakes, switching almost overnight from petty criminals stealing typewriters to ruthless, murdering gangsters. Their plan was to rule Rome, taking advantage of crooked cops, a corrupt government and a growing feeling of anarchy in the streets. It’s a violent, searing look at the darker side of the Eternal City.
Here are five reasons you absolutely must watch it:
The incredible 70’s fashion and hairstyles
When it comes to recreating period detail, this show has got it mastered. From the tough talking bad dudes with bellbottoms and porn star ‘mo’s to the cops driving vintage Fiats and sporting giant walkie talkies: the 70’s are alive and well.
You actually learn something about a little known time in history
So while the rest of the world was blowing up Vietnam and worrying what crazy shit Iran was up to, Italy in the 1970’s was apparently also a pretty scary place! The joint was rife with fascist uprisings, bombings, kidnappings and endless police brutality, sanctioned by a corrupt government willing to do anything or pay off anyone (read: the Mob) to stay in power. The fact that the story is based on truth only makes the period detail more evocative: you literally feel like you’re escaping to a place and time you never knew existed.
Handsome, charismatic bad guys
After Tony Soprano and Walter White etc, we’re used to rooting for the bad guys. But this crew aren’t your typical schlubby middle-aged white dudes taking the law into their own hands: they’re young and handsome and in a life of crime for one reason: cos they don’t give A F. They’re not trying to provide for their family, they’re in it purely for the thrill, to get rich and then get richer. It’s refreshing to see anti-heroes that are SO anti-heroic.
The batshit-crazy soundtrack
Iggy Pop? Check.
KC & the Sunshine Band? Check.
A mortuary heist involving a dead body and Bonnie Tyler belting out “Total Eclipse of the Heart”? Check and check.
It’s a show that knows its genre but isn’t afraid to experiment
It’s got the requisite bullets, boobs and bad language of every gangland thriller, but Romanzo Criminale is also darkly funny and, at times, completely absurd. One minute the boys are playing a spirited game of beach volleyball and the next they’re embarking on a ruthless, bloody killing spree.
The series was directed by an ex news cameraman, and for every scene that is meticulously structured there’s another that feels like it’s shot with a handheld camera, grabbing what details it can while getting dragged along for the ride. The mix of genres and styles not only builds tension and keeps you guessing, it’s a sign of confident filmmaking, a show that - like its heroes - is going to do whatever the hell it wants.
Convinced? Romanzo Criminale airs Mondays at 11pm on SBS. You can also watch the series online on SBS On Demand.