In many ways, Netflix’s recent Italian-language hit series Suburra (2017–2020) is a standard story about gangsters and mafiosos, a story retold in countless films and TV series ever since the gangster film genre emerged in 1920s America. Suburra, inspired by a real-life scandal, revolves around plans to sell a portion of land in Ostia, a seaside neighbourhood of Rome, and build a port there. Rival gangs, as well as the Sicilian mafia, fight to have a hand in the construction of the port, which they plan to turn into a drug-trafficking hub.
The series focuses on Aureliano Adami (Alessandro Borghi) and Alberto ‘Spadino’ Anacleti (Alberto ‘Spadino’ Anacleti), the younger sons of two rival gang families, who feel they are not playing the role that is their due in the family business. Going against their respective gangs, the two join forces and take on Samurai Francesco Acquaroli), the head of organised crime in Rome, and try to win the port for themselves. The new port does not tempt only drug dealers and underdogs like Aureliano and Spadino. Samurai has politicians at Rome City Hall and even cardinals on his payroll – the land in Ostia is being sold by the Vatican.
What sets Suburra apart from comparable “Italian Mob” series and films is its magnificent location: Rome, the mythical capital of the Roman Empire, which never lost any of its ancient prestige and grandeur. By contrast, most gangster or mafia films are set in struggling parts of Sicily or Naples, places south of Rome infamous for the activities of the Mafia and the Camorra, or in dodgy neighbourhoods of New York or Chicago, metropolises with a history of organised crime.
One could expect Suburra to similarly limit its territory to crime-infested suburbs far from the imposing ruins of ancient Rome. Instead, as the series engages centrally with the way organised crime infiltrates the highest levels of politics, its locations oscillate between suburban Ostia and historic vistas of central Rome and the Vatican. These recognisable sights, such as the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica, do not function only as a scenic backdrop. Rather, they extend Suburra’s deeply cynical view of power and status into the past. From its title, which refers to a notorious neighbourhood in ancient Rome, to its evocative use of symbolically charged Roman cityscapes and landmarks, Suburra presents gang warfare, corruption, and abuse of power not as modern anomalies, but as age-old features of Roman politics.
With this critical outlook, Suburra follows the long tradition of gangster films and shows, which, although primarily fast-paced thrillers, are also considered to be deeply concerned with ‘serious’ issues. The gangster genre emerged in 1920s America as a reflection of current affairs, namely, Prohibition and the consequent boom in criminal activities, which in turn resulted in intense news coverage of gangsters and the public’s fascination with them. The films catered to this fascination, constructing thrilling narratives of shoot-outs and car chases while reestablishing law and order through the death of the antisocial gangster at the end.
While this simplistic outline of the gangster film suggests that the genre is highly moralistic and conservative, the full picture is more complicated. The gangster is the protagonist of the film – a violent, misogynist, lawless one, but nevertheless a protagonist of some charisma with whom the audience is invited to empathise. This glorification of the (anti)hero in the classic gangster film has led some critics to argue that political and social subversion is integral to the genre.
According to these analyses, the gangster is a criminal breaking the law, but at the same time, he embodies the ruthless struggle for success in an individualist world, taking capitalist ideology to its logical, brutal conclusion. The American audience who live in the same societal context can relate to the gangster’s aspirations and struggles and are thrilled by his criminal success. His downfall at the end, therefore, represents not only the triumph of law and order but also the elusiveness of material success and its dubious value. While the mysterious, underground figure of the gangster seems to have gained respect and power for himself in his limited domain, he is ultimately a pathetic have-not who is trying to make a living in a cruel world.
Most analyses focus on the classic gangster picture of the early 20th-century, but films continue to follow this template – Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) is, in character Karen Hills’ words, “just about making a little bit more.” The classic gangster film, then, portrays the ‘buried underside’ of American society, the urban nightmare instead of the American dream. It is a genre very much concerned with poverty, lack of opportunity, and consequent crime and social disintegration.
This conception of the gangster as a ‘problem’ implies that there is the possibility of a more honourable life and a more just system that does not produce widespread societal problems. Such hopefulness is completely absent from Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful reinvention of the gangster genre in the Godfather trilogy. The Godfather is not interested in up-and-coming, would-be gangsters. Instead, it explores the highest levels of American society and discovers they operate in a mobster-like way. The Godfather unmasks order and justice as a thin facade, and portrays people who believe in accountability, transparency, and rule of law as hopelessly naïve:
Michael (Al Pacino): My father’s no different from any other powerful man. Any man who’s responsible for other people. Like a senator or a president.
Kay (Diane Keaton): You know how naïve you sound? Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.
Michael: Who’s being naïve, Kay?
The Corleone family is not an anomaly in the Godfather universe. The trilogy presents a deeply cynical view of American society where values and ideals are mere slogans that mask reality – the raw struggle for power at the top. This is not society malfunctioning, but society as it is. Michael and his clan are not criminal outsiders, they are people at the very heart of American political life who can make the system work for their own benefit.
Notably, police or law persecution is never a major plot point in the Godfather – whenever such incidents occur, it is only a matter of time before the Corleone family pull the right strings and get themselves out of trouble. The Corleone saga is not interested in bringing attention to the ‘buried underside’ of society, but rather in portraying the Machiavellian motivations that shape the highest spheres of public life – the hand from above that guides and controls the movements of its marionettes, as seen in the Godfather logo.