Mobsters in a Different Light
Italian pictures that may be seen as equivalents of the American gangster genre focus on local organised crime, known abroad wholesale as the Mafia. Since such organisations have been known to intrude into outsiders’ lives on a larger scale than their American counterparts, it is unsurprising that their portrayal on-screen is far less sympathetic or even overtly hostile. Most Mafia films are set in Sicily (e g., Damiano Damiani’s The Day of the Owl, 1968) or in Naples (Matteo Garrone’s film Gomorrah 2008, and Roberto Saviano’s series Gomorrah 2014–2021). Rome has featured only rarely as a setting for gangster pictures, e. g. in the Italian-language Romanzo criminale (Michele Placido, 2005) which dwells very little on its location, or in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather III (1990) where Michael briefly does business with the Vatican.
While rarely used as a location, the symbolic value of Rome, though still oblique, seems to have had greater relevance for the gangster film. The city of Rome with its rich history has always been something more than just a physical location in the popular imagination. It has acquired numerous symbolic meanings, ranging from the paragon of power, beauty, and glory to the prime example of decadence, decay, and ruin. Many are familiar with the cinematic image of a powerful ancient Rome whose greatness is threatened by its very own corruption, as epitomised for modern audiences in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).
The symbolic meanings attached to the city of Rome and its history can turn it into a vehicle for thinking about issues in the modern world. The association of Rome with the ambivalent value of power has an obvious appeal for the gangster genre. The title of an early gangster film, Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931), references the famous Roman general and dictator. His on-screen namesake, an ill-mannered thug, bears little resemblance to the ancient figure, the discrepancy between the name and its bearer ironically emphasising his limited powers and limited options. The Godfather in its expansive ambition creates the most provocative connection between ancient Rome and the gangster.
Towards the end of The Godfather Part II (1974), a character who has betrayed Michael and is now forced to commit suicide (Roman-style) reminisces: “We was like the Roman empire. The Corleone family was like the Roman empire.” The Godfather does not convey a disillusionment only about the current state of society, but also about the age-old workings of political organisations. Comparing the unscrupulous Corleone clan to the Roman empire expands Coppola’s allegory of power from a critique of American capitalism into a universal observation of the nature of human societies.
Suburra emphasises and exploits its Roman setting, using carefully composed shots and symbolically charged locations to suggest through visual cues that nothing has changed in Rome since antiquity. In order to extend the cynical worldview and disillusionment typical of gangster pictures into the Roman past, the series does not attempt to film the grand monuments and ruins of the city in an unflattering or unimposing manner. On the contrary, the big-budget Netflix production makes full use of Rome’s breathtaking scenery, laying out golden vistas of the city in the evening light and magnificent ground angle shots of its architecture.
These beautiful frames are not simply a stunning backdrop to be admired – the viewer’s perception of them is manipulated through the imposition of seemingly incongruous characters and events into these serene surroundings. Spadino and Aureliano, the rival gangster underdogs, one in a tracksuit and the other covered in tattoos and leather, make their way across St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican on their way to extort money from a cardinal. A majestic view of St. Peter’s Dome is immediately preceded by a graphic murder a stone’s throw from the sight. This cognitive dissonance may suggest that Aureliano, Spadino, and their associates are misfit arrivals onto the once pristine scenery of Rome. However, Suburra is far from presenting a simplistic dichotomy between law and order on one side, symbolised by grand monuments of the eternal city in the background, and dirty criminals on the other, represented by the gangsters of Ostia.
Rather than an expired backdrop, the ruins and palaces of Rome turn out to be and always to have been a facade behind which the real Rome happens. The extensive exploration of the naïve belief in transparent institutions on one side and the true workings of power on the other in the Godfather takes shape in Suburra primarily as a visual juxtaposition of facade / appearance versus concealed reality. In its own words, Suburra is about “the hidden soul of Rome” (“l’anima oscura di questa città”), which the series suggests has been the same since antiquity. In this version, the ‘soul of Rome’ is not to be found on the Forum or on the Palatine but in the notorious Suburra neighbourhood, a densely populated part of ancient Rome where the urban poor lived in miserable quarters very different from the monumental architecture of temples and palaces we admire today.
If Suburra, the poor neighbourhood of which little remains, stands for the invisible reality, the ‘hidden soul’ of Rome, past and present, then perhaps the ruins of ancient Rome, symbolic of its political and cultural prestige, represent nothing more than a facade. The timeless beauty of Rome serves to distract from and conceal the reality of what goes on behind – a just as timeless brutal struggle for power.
Making a deal under the cover of night where the houses of Suburra once stood, Samurai, the head of organised crime in Rome, reflects: “Suburra – this place hasn’t changed in two thousand years. Patricians and plebeians, politicians and criminals – Rome.” This does not mean that the criminal activities of the underdogs of Suburra / Ostia undermine the well-meaning efforts of the rulers of Rome. This is not the ‘buried underside’ mentality of the classic gangster film, though the opening credits of the series evoke it.
On a cobblestone pavement, individual blocks separate from the rest and rearrange themselves to write SUBURRA. This image introduces episodes in which revelations that the highest levels of political and public life cooperate with and benefit from organised crime multiply. The cobblestones are then not simply the buried underside rising from the ground – they are a hidden pattern revealing itself. Samurai’s ‘politicians and criminals’ are not opposed but interchangeable. In the facade versus reality spirit, the kind of lawlessness one would associate with rundown Suburra is equally at home on the glamorous Capitoline Hill, which overlooks the ancient Forum and is currently the site of the City Council of Rome, the top legislative body of the city. On his nightly visit to Suburra, Samurai wins for himself an informer at the City Council who will prove key for his plans to win the port of Ostia for himself – but, as this new associate is astonished to find out, he is only one of many on the Capitoline working for Samurai.
The politicians of Rome are “a pack of wolves around a bone” – an image especially evocative in the Roman context. According to the well-known legend, Rome was founded by the brothers Romulus and Remus, who were nursed by a she-wolf after being abandoned in the wild. The miraculously caring, nurturing wolf that stands at the very beginning of Rome is here unsentimentally restored to its true nature – a savage animal looking out only for itself. Samurai divides his time between the suburbs, where he bullies desperate people with little choice into working for him, and between the Capitoline, where he does business with less desperate, more unscrupulous city officials with the vista of the ruins of the Forum in the background.
If nothing has changed in Rome for two thousand years, then his presence there is not an incongruous intrusion, but rather the contemporary manifestation of the greedy, self-serving, opportunistic deals which have run Rome ever since the time when the Forum stood in its full splendour. As on the Capitoline, so in the Vatican. The cardinal whom Samurai brutally murders is not an upright victim who resisted cooperation, but a long-time collaborator who made the mistake of trying to work against his boss – Samurai, not the pope. After his death, Samurai has no trouble finding another cardinal to look after his interests in the Church.
As Netflix’s first production in Italian treading on the heels of a successful film of the same name (2015), Suburra is of course first and foremost a commercial enterprise designed to hook viewers and keep them invested and entertained. Yet at the same time, it constructs a cynical portrait of the city of Rome and its history that complements visually the pessimism about political power characteristic of the gangster genre. The series creates a bleak world of greed and power in which nothing good and sincere – here represented by the unlikely true friendship between Aureliano and Spadino – can survive. Their good instincts and good intentions are fleeting moments that cannot translate into any productive purpose, and even they are cruel and unscrupulous in their dealings with others.
Indeed, nothing good can last, and in such circumstances, Rome’s designation as ‘the eternal city’ acquires a rather unpleasant intimation. The age-old physical city of Rome has long been a symbol of the perpetuity of beauty, power, and other ideals. Suburra, as we have seen, exposes such ideals in the public sphere as a mere mask that conceals a ruthless struggle for power. Yet it does not let go of the idea of eternity, declaring ‘Only Rome is eternal’ in a poster advertising the final season of the show. If we understand here Rome as Suburra portrays it, eternity then belongs to the clash between the pretty facades and the ugly truth behind them, and to the lure of the facade which prevents us from recognising it as a mirage.