For almost a century, our screens have been filled with wise guys and goodfellas. Whether it's The Godfather or Tony Soprano, we love to watch guys in Italian restaurants taking care of business; the Mafia film becoming a trope as well-worn as the Western.
But, these days, is any of it still true to reality? In 2016, are Italian family men actually putting decapitated horses' heads in the beds of their rivals and making offers you can't refuse?
To find out, I've come to Italy to a visit an area of Rome that, in Roman times, was known as Suburra. It's where the wealthy would come to mix with the lower classes in taverns and brothels, often looking for prostitutes or professional killers. It's also the name of a new film byGomorrah director Stefano Sollima, because it turns out that 2,000 years later, the city's political classes still like to come here to make deals with the illegal underworld.
Released in the UK this week, Suburra has already been a runaway success in Italy. A spin-off show based on the film will be Netflix's first Italian-made series next year, and it's earned Sollima a job in Hollywood directing the upcoming Sicario sequel, Soldado.
Suburra is set over a seven-day period in 2011. It follows a group of warring Mafia families as they set about turning Ostia, a waterfront suburb of Rome, into a gambling strip to rival Las Vegas. To do so, gang boss Samurai, in cahoots with local politician Malgradi, tries to push through a bill that will allow the area to be redeveloped into a sprawl of casinos. It's a rambling neo-noir taking in sex, drugs, and the Vatican. Through Sollima's lens, we see politicians and gangsters working together, complicit in the same crimes.
"I believe that Suburra, if you know the city and how things work here, is a realistic and truthful portrait," says Sollima over a plate of food. "It's based on truth. It's a film about power. It's an answer to the question: What are you willing to give of yourself in order to keep or have more power?"
We're having lunch at Urbana 47, a restaurant about 300 feet from the Piazza della Suburra, the area's hub. With us are the film's writers: journalist Carlo Bonini and crime writer Giancarlo De Cataldo.
"In Rome, it is impossible to talk about crime or to write a crime story without considering political power, or without considering the Vatican," says De Cataldo, who also wrote the novel Romanzo Criminale, another modern Mafia story that was turned into a film and later a TV series. "At the same time, you feel the influence of the mob. That's why Suburra was an attempt to reveal something that is under the surface of Rome."
Corruption in real-life Rome came a little closer to the surface in November last year with the start of the Mafia Capitale trials. Forty-six defendants, including several politicians, were accused of a range of corruption charges, including rigging deals for public contracts that included creating refugee centers and trash collection services.
Italian authorities have 36,000 hours of wiretaps, as well as secret video recordings of some of the accused receiving bribes. However, the defendants have denied that they have any Mafia links. In Italy, Mafia crimes carry longer prison sentences, with tougher conditions, than ordinary corruption convictions.
Looking at the images of the accused arriving in court, they don't seem to fit with our idea of the Mafia. This trial seems like one of straightforward corruption, rather than a seedy underworld headed by a Marlon Brando-type figure. So is it fair to equate this modern political scandal with the mob?
De Cataldo, who also works as a judge, explains: "They are accused of Mafia crimes, which is something that will have to be discussed by those judges. I'm not included—fortunately! We have a traditional image of the Mafia: men from southern Italy with a strong sense of family, killing with a sawn-off shotgun called a lupara because it was used to kill wolves. It's difficult for us to accept culturally that the Mafia evolves. It changes with the times. This is a globalized world, and the Mafia is globalized, too.
"Society is technological, so crime is technological, too—and faster than us. On a judicial level, they will have to discuss [whether these were Mafia crimes]. I think it will take five or six months before we get a judgement; it will be in November or December. The judges will have to decide on custom, on habit, on culture, and, in the heads of people, whether this is the Mafia."
Gangs based in the heart of the Italian capital mark a distinct change from the traditionally Sicilian gangs who gave birth to the American Mafia. Today, the Sicilian Mafia is much weaker than, say, when Mario Puzo was writing The Godfather in the 1960s.
"To find the Mafia, you used to go to Sicily or to Calabria—there was a geographical element to it," explains Bonini. "It's changed a lot. Now there is a general perception that the Mafia is almost everywhere. Sometimes people can't elaborate precisely, but the perception of corruption and criminal pressure is widespread. There are no more places in Italy where people will say: 'This is a Mafia-free town.' It may not mean that the Mafia is everywhere, but the perception of the Mafia has changed. That's why we now say Mafia Capitale, the Mafia in Rome."
In Suburra the film, bodies pile up quickly, and it's easy to spot the Mafia in action. De Cataldo says that, in real life, contemporary gangsters are less violent than they've been in the past, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're less powerful.
"Never trust the Mafia when they aren't shooting and killing," he says. "That's when they're doing business. All Mafia guys say: 'When you kill someone, you have to take care of the corpse.' It's very expensive. If you aren't killing anybody, it means that you don't need to kill anybody. That's when you're strongest."
Can he see an end to it? "The great judge Giovanni Falcone used to say: 'Everything has a start and an end in life, so will the Mafia.' I don't think I'll live to see it, though," he sighs.
Suburra may deal in traditional gangster movie tropes, but it uses them to tell a story that's modern and universal.
"What we portray in our movie is something that you can find all over the world," points out Sollima. "You have huge scandals in the UK too with politicians. Sometimes they're not interested in fighting for our problems, and they're just interested in making more money for themselves and for their friends. It's the dark side of politics."
If the Mafia is in bed with enough politicians, Suburra shows, they don't even need the horses' heads.
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