10 reasons to watch Romanzo Criminale
Yes, there’s more to Italian TV than semi-naked women, infantile game shows and politically incorrect ads!
If you live in Rome and hang out with Romans of a certain age, chances are, someone will make a reference to Romanzo Criminale, a hugely popular and critically acclaimed TV series that aired in 2008-2010. (There also a hugely popular and critically acclaimed film made in 2005, but as I haven’t seen that yet, let’s stick to the TV series).
The series follows the lives and, er, “careers” of a gang of criminals in 1970s Rome (based on the real life Banda della Magliana). The gang is lead by the thoroughly unlikable, thuggish il Libanese, who aims to become the most powerful criminal in Rome through the gang’s domination of the city’s heroin supply. The episodes are focused on internal politics and wars with rival criminals and gangs, and the tireless efforts of the police commissioner Scialoja to bring them to justice. There’s a bit of doomed romance, but mainly it’s just a lot drugs and violence and incomprehensible Roman dialect.
Romanzo Criminale is fantastic, utterly compelling TV. You should watch it. Here’s why:
1. It’s incredibly gripping. I’m not really one for binge-watching TV, but there was definitely a temptation with Romanzo Criminale. Although there’s something kind of predictable – even inevitable – about the pattern of violence and betrayal, you can’t wait to find out what happens next. Will the gang kill their rivals? Will Scialoja have that sad puppy dog look in his eyes after being rejected by Patrizia once again? Will Dandi continue to be an irredeemable stronzo? We all know what the answer is, but it’s addictive nonetheless.
2. It’s an education in the dialetto romanesco. 90% of the dialogue is in dialect so thick that even Italians from other parts of the country struggle to understand it.
Sample quote from Libanese, talking to the gang:
“Allora, questa è l’ultima occasione, si nun v’a sentite, è mejo che ve pijate ‘a stecca vostra e ve n’annate. Perché se restate, c’avrete ‘n mese d’inferno, dovrete usa’ le mani e pesta’ parecchi piedi, guardavve le spalle e dormi’ co l’occhi aperti, ma alla fine nun basterà sta borsa pe’ tutti li soldi che ve resteranno. Allora, chi ce sta?”
Rough translation (I think): “Right, this is your last chance. If you’re not going to listen, you might as well fuck off. If you’re with me, you’re going to have a month from hell, so get ready. You’ll always be looking behind your back and sleeping with your eyes open, but it’ll be worth it because at the end, we’ll have so much money that it won’t fit in this bag. So, who’s with me?”
I had to watch the series with subtitles (in Italian), because although I live in Rome and understand some dialect, I’m not fluent in it. Watching Romanzo Criminale improved my comprehension of the dialect and made me want to speak it myself, although I can’t really carry off phrases like “Che cazzo stai a di?” in a British accent.
3. You learn about (modern) Roman history. If you’re not Italian, you probably don’t know much about life and politics in Rome in the 1970s. Romanzo Criminale provides a fascinating insight into the world of 70s Rome, from crime to communism to fashion. Yes, it fictionalized, but the main characters are based on real people – Libanese is the Magliana gang leader Franco Giuseppucci, Freddo is Maurizio Abbatino – and it feels authentic. It also features real historical events, from the assassination of Aldo Moro to the Bologna bombing.
4. Bufalo. Although he wasn’t one of my favourite characters to begin with, as he became increasingly deranged, I grew increasingly fond of him. Most of the other gang members have a softer or at least a lighter sight, whereas Bufalo is in “insane thug hell-bent on revenge” mode 24/7. He’s like a less romantic, more Roman Heathcliff.
I once saw the actor who plays Bufalo, Andrea Sartoretti, sitting on a bench in Piazza Testaccio. While I’m sure he’s perfectly pleasant in real life, he doesn’t seem like the most approachable of people, so I didn’t ask for an autograph.
5. The soundtrack. Che soundtrack! Romanzo Criminale introduced me to so many wonderful Italian songs, from Patty Pravo’s “Pazza idea” to Antonello Venditti’s “Lilly”. There are also songs by some of my favourite 80s bands, like OMD and the Psychedelic Furs, and even “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks in a 60s flashback scene.
The songs are great in themselves, but the use is spectacular – “Tutto il resto e’ noia” is the perfect choice for a wedding scene interspersed with the gang gunning down an enemy (spoiler alert).
6. The Total Eclipse of the Heart scene. Don’t click the link if you’re not up to season 2, as it’s a major spoiler. It’s a scene where a character steals the coffin of another character, set to Bonnie Tyler’s classic power ballad. Hilarious, pathetic and moving all at once.
7. The locations. Most scenes in Romanzo Criminale are set in the suburbs of Rome – a world away from the centro storico and the neighbourhoods that tourists are familiar with. It’s actually quite refreshing to see another side of Rome, rather than the beautiful, glamorous world of La Dolce Vita.
There are a few scenes in more familiar locations. Giolitti in Testaccio (not to be confused with the famous gelateria) features a few times, and an important character gets killed in the picturesque surroundings of Piazza Mattei in the Ghetto. There’s also a early morning meeting in the ruins of Ostia Antica. I love the contrast between the bellezza of the centre and the grittiness of the suburbs, the gloomy bar in Magliana and Dandi’s palatial apartment in Via Giulia (2nd season).
8. It’s short and sweet. TV series that have 5+ seasons (ie: Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad) can be off-putting for a first-time viewer. You might not want to commit yourself to plowing through 23402340 minutes of TV, and then there’s always the chance that it jumps the shark. Romanzo Criminale has just two seasons – 22 hour long episodes – and is consistently brilliant. If you need something to fill the gap after you’ve finished the series, there’s always the film, and the Neapolitan equivalent, Gomorrah, which are both on my to-watch list.
9. The eye candy. There are quite a few attractive people in Romanzo Criminale. Notable mentions include Scialoja, whose sexiness is compromised by his terrible moustache, and Dandi, whose sexiness is compromised by his terrible personality. My crush on Freddo kind of disappeared over the second season, as he becomes less likeable. Not that he was ever that likeable to begin, but when you compare him to the others…Anyway, then there’s the beautiful Patrizia – the prostitute who becomes Dandi’s reluctant lover. 10/10 for Patrizia.
10. It makes you feel 100 times more tosto. You could be watching Romanzo Criminale tucked up in bed, wearing pink pyjamas, and by the end of the episode you’ll feel like a hardened criminal, ready to fill an infame with bullets from the back of a motorino before whizzing off with a suitcase full of cash.
It might be a good idea to watch an episode before heading out to take on a round of Italian bureaucracy, or battling your way through the crowds on the metro. If the characters of Romanzo Criminale can survive a couple of decades of drugs, guns, arrests and attempted murders, you can survive the queue at the Anagrafe or a journey on the B line at rush hour!
Romanzo Criminale is probably easy to find online, but I’m not sure about subtitles. Unless you’re familiar with Roman dialect, you’ll probably struggle, so look out for the DVD instead. It’s been released with English subtitles too and is available on Amazon.