Combining a gritty feel for the tense loyalties of underworld alliances with a flair for period detail, Michele Placido’s gangster epic “Crime Novel” rides full steam through Italy’s years of terrorism in the ’70s but loses force halfway through the two-hour-plus mark. Still, first half plays as a respectable addition to the classic ensemble gangland genre, offering a gangster’s-eye view of recent Italo history that reps the flip side of “The Best of Youth” — not coincidentally co-scripted by “Crime Novel” writers Stefano Rulli and Sandro Petraglia. Opening weekend saw decent if not boffo biz; Euro arthouses may see modest returns.
The leap from juvenile delinquents to ful-fledged criminals is easy for a trio of friends whose assumed nicknames contribute to their self-perceived coolness. Cold-blooded Libanese (Pierfrancesco Favino) thinks of himself as the ringleader and wants his friends and he to become the most powerful, feared men in Rome. Freddo’s (Kim Rossi Stuart) loyalties run deep, while Dandi (Claudio Santamaria) is enamored of the trappings of power.
They start off by kidnapping a baron (Franco Interlenghi), who Libanese casually murders. Libanese graduates to more grandiose ideas, including cornering the market on heroin sales, which the gang accomplishes through shadowy partnerships with mobsters, crooked cops and the secret service.
On the other side is Inspector Scialoja (Stefano Accorsi), who traces the marked ransom money to Dandi’s g.f., call girl Patrizia (Anna Mouglalis). The cop’s obsession with bringing down Libanese and his gang becomes linked to his uncontrollable desire for the shrewd Patrizia.
Meanwhile, Freddo falls for the straight and pure Roberta (Jasmine Trinca). Her attempt to educate Freddo in the beauties of Italian Old Masters, however, is unbelievable and could easily be discarded.
After an orgy of violence including a significant murder, the elaborately constructed world of the gang crumbles, and pic also loses its drive.
Consciously basing much of his style on Italo crime pics from the ’70s (with an indisputable indebtedness to Coppola and Scorsese), helmer Placido uncannily captures the style and swagger of the era. But what gives “Crime Novel” its structure is in the way political events impact the lives of these antiheroes, first brought to full prominence with the kidnapping and murder of politico Aldo Moro in 1978.
Well-chosen contempo TV reports are expertly spliced into the protags’ crimes, highlighting the unholy alliances between gangsters and terrorists, mobsters and politicians whose connections are still shrouded in mystery (unfortunately some of that confusion rubs off in the narrative).
The 1980 bombing of the Bologna train station, which itself marked the beginning of the end of the period’s more spectacular attacks, also forms a turning point in the film, after which its energy splutters and the running time drags.
Ensemble work is high throughout, with Favino carving out an especially chilling niche for himself. Mouglalis doesn’t reveal any new depths, but she’s got down pat the prostitute’s knowing understanding of power games. Accorsi is fine, although he could use a decent comedy as a change from his recent hang-dog roles.
“The years of lead” is the general moniker given to the bullet-strewn period in the ’70s and early ’80s when the Red Brigades terrorized most of Italy. Perhaps in a bid to evoke the tonalities associated with the metal, Placido and d.p. Luca Bigazzi keep the palette muted and cold, with an emphasis on grays and ice blues until the second half when colors get warmer and richer.
Music is strong. Soulful Italo pop queen Giorgia’s cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is bound to be a local hit.