‘Italian Gangsters’: Venice Review

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Director Renato De Maria’s most entertaining film to date.

This psychological portrait of the Italian underworld after the war is a true crime orgy.

The mastery and excitement that Italian cinema was once known for springs to life again in Italian Gangsters, a high-energy revisitation of the nefarious post-war mobsters of Milan. A cast of electrifying stage actors, virtually unknown on the big screen, reflect on their lives of crime, while their careers are illustrated with archive footage intercut with classic old Italian gangland movies. It’s a hard combo to resist and, even if the monologues against a black background lend a mild note of the avant-garde, the pace is fast enough for any Scorsese fan to enjoy. Still, the film’s very originality, which should earn it a slew of festival berths after Venice Horizons, is likely to cap its commercial appeal.

Echoing the boldness of director Renato De Maria’s better films, which range from PAZ! — based on the work of Italian cult cartoonist Andrea Pazienza  — to his political terrorism tale Prima Linea, Italian Gangsters goes one important step farther stylistically to conjure up a strange, but not unpleasant, dreamlike image of Italy during the thirty years after the war. As reconstruction gives way to a frenzied economic boom, the working class is transformed into motorized consumers, and the Al Capone period of cops and robbers gives way to an era of relative law and order mixed with the sexual revolution.

All of this is suggested through beautifully integrated and blazingly edited clips coming from producer Istituto Luce’s and Rai television’s rich archive libraries. It’s hard to recall an Italian film that makes such dynamic use of period footage, and editor Letizia Caudullo shows bold self-assurance in combining them with excerpts from films by Antonioni, Bellocchio, Elio Petri and the like.

Playing against this historic background are the on-camera interviews/confessions of half a dozen feared crime lords. A handful of young theater actors bring these historical figures to life, each with his individual devil-may-care attitude and outlandish world view. The surreal dialogue is based on the published words of the gangsters themselves.

Enzo Barbieri (Francesco Sferrazza Papa) was, for several years, the boss of Milan. Paolo Casaroli (Sergio Romano) is a thoughtful intellectual who uses crime to test his limits and explore who he is. The fascinating, ironic Luciano De Maria (a brilliant Paolo Mazzarelli) comes from a dangerous working-class neighborhood in Milan, while the wild-eyed Luciano Lutring (Luca Micheletti) seems like a borderline psycho. All are pretty satisfied with their criminal pasts.

What’s even more startling is the connection many of them have to the Communist party, and their loyalties brim with confused political ideology. As children they listened to the local partisans recount their adventures attacking Fascist tanks during the war, and so they drew inspiration for attacking banks and jewelry shops. While riddling cops with bullets is all in a day’s work, they never shoot workers and guards if they can help it. And we briefly hear one cite, with no small conviction, Brecht’s well-known line that it’s more criminal to found a bank than to rob one.

If this lively, very entertaining film has a thesis, it is perhaps how these dangerous criminals sprang up from the rubble of post-war Italy. Born in the 1920s and '30s, they grew to manhood in the starving shells of bombed-out northern cities like Milan and Bologna. Their first weapons were contraband war relics – German sub-machine guns and Mausers.

Horst Fantazzini (played by Andrea Di Casa), for example, was the child of a German working class mother and an Italian partisan anarchist. Pietro Cavallero (Aldo Ottobrino) says flying bullets and racing cars reminded him of the Resistance movement. “I was at war with society,” he claims. When they are finally captured, three of them sing the working class protest song “Sons of the Workshop” to the gawking crowds. Yet in the end, their project of “revolutionary robberies” rings hollow, a lame political excuse for greed and high-living.

Gianfilippo Corticelli’s edgy black and white cinematography recalls the French New Wave, creating a romantic retro atmosphere of the '40s and '50s vs. the dynamic energy of the '60s. The sound effects are a noteworthy addition, while Lele Marchitelli’s score is retro and avant-garde at the same time.

Production companies: Istituto Luce, Minerva Pictures

Cast: Francesco Sferrazza Papa, Sergio Romano, Aldo Ottobrino, Paolo Mazzarelli, Andrea Di Casa, Luca Micheletti
Director: Renato De Maria
Valentina Strada,Federico Gnesini, Renato De Maria
Producers: Roberto Cicutto, Gianluca Curti
Executive producer:  Maura Cosenza
Director of photography: Gianfilippo Corticelli
Music: Lele Marchitelli
Editor: Letizia Caudullo
Sales Agent: Minerva Pictures
87 minutes