A beautifully made drama tracing the final years of a real-life Italian criminal who left a trail of random murders, assaults and burglaries through France in the 1980s, “Roberto Succo” doesn’t quite fulfill its initial promise, but remains a gripping, stylish example of its type. Using a cool quasi-documentary approach that avoids sensationalism, director Cedric Kahn’s film starts exceptionally well, with a distinctive sense of place in its portrayal of southern France as hospitable terrain for escape and anonymity. But when the focus shifts beyond the hypnotic title character to include the cops on his tail, it slips disappointingly into standard (albeit well-done) police procedural mode. Still, commercial prospects appear solid, perhaps even more so with some minor tightening.
Succo’s exploits previously were the basis for a play by Bernard-Marie Koltes that cast him as a misunderstood hero, and journalist Pascale Froment’s book “Je le tue: Histoire vraie de Roberto Succo,” which served as the raw material for Kahn’s script.
The film focuses on the attachment between Succo (Stefano Cassetti) and 16-year-old high school student Lea (Isild Le Besco), who knew him as Kurt. The two sustained a non-violent relationship for roughly a year, starting with their meeting in the south of France at the end of summer vacation, and continuing with Kurt’s frequent visits to her home in the Savoy mountains. While Succo’s long list of crimes included several rapes, his sexual relationship with Lea is portrayed as clumsy and unfulfilling, perhaps deliberately echoing the poor sexual relationship between the two leads in “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Unlike those fabled gangsters, Lea is uninvolved in Kurt’s crime spree, choosing to remain oblivious to clues such as his constant switching of cars and fat wads of cash. After he confesses to killing his parents at age 19, Lea’s affection for Kurt begins cooling; she insists they stop seeing each other, a break he takes badly. Later when she learns he is wanted for killing cops, Lea is persuaded to go to the police with information.
Head of the police investigation is a fictional detective named Thomas (Patrick Dell’Isola), who slowly begins piecing together the various crimes. A detailed description comes from a young med student (Estelle Perron), hijacked in her car by Kurt, now known as Andre. After fabricating a characteristically self-aggrandizing persona for himself as an internationally notorious terrorist, he releases her in almost friendly fashion.
The script’s complex depiction of Succo casts him alternately as naive, nervous and almost childlike or smart and cunning, the latter borne out by his consistent ability to evade police. One chase results in one of the film’s best sequences, a tense flight over the border into Switzerland with a hostage at the wheel (Viviana Aliberti), who calmly informs him, “I’m a schoolteacher, I’m used to kids.”
Final section has Succo returning to Italy, where he is apprehended. Kahn briefly touches on the confused, contradictory pseudo-political statements Succo made that were misinterpreted in some circles as the words of an anarchist hero.
Kahn’s choice to underplay the story’s more gruesome aspects provides benefits in terms of authority and texture, frequently showing butchered corpses but never the act of killing. Instead, he details Succo’s odd attempts to cultivate understanding and even friendship with his hostages. Only one incident, in which he abducts a mother and son and abandons them naked in the mountains, shows him unconcerned with establishing some kind of connection.
Succo is portrayed as neither a monster nor a sympathetic martyr and the chief asset in this depiction is Cassetti, who has no previous acting experience but represents a strong presence with his edgy, lean physicality and intense, piercing eyes. Le Besco’s sweet, slightly absent quality also works.
Handsomely shot by Pascal Marti in widescreen with striking visual depth and simple, unshowy camera movement (aside from some lightning pans in the latter action as cops close in), the film has a rich feel for its many locations, ranging from small towns to coastal resorts, backwoods to mountain roads.