Contrary to what you might think having watched dozens of films and television series about the mafia, Rome was not controlled by the mob in the early 1970s. There were many small groups, or batteries as they were called, which committed low-level crimes, but no larger organization controlling it all. Romanzo Criminale, the Italian TV series that was a huge hit in its homeland and now makes its way to American home video via Kino Lorber, takes a fictionalized look at the real Magliana Gang that took control of Rome and ruled it for most of the '70s and '80s.
It begins with a loose battery of criminals pulling off the kidnapping of a rich Duke and collecting a nice ransom. Instead of everybody taking their cut and going their own way as planned, a man known as The Libanese (Francesco Montanari) suggests that they pool their money and use it to seed a much larger criminal enterprise. They could rule all of Rome, he says, if they work together. Some opt out, but a great many, including Freddo (Vincio Marchioni) and Dandi (Alessandro Roja), agree to form a real gang.
What starts as a democracy, with everyone getting a say in how the things are run, quickly turns totalitarian, and The Libanese uses intimidation and brute force to rule the gang. Freddo, who is both more intelligent and cautious than Libanese, becomes a close advisor. Slowly, and not without setbacks, the gang takes over various aspects of crime throughout the city. Rome is rife with corruption, and politicians, police, and even the secret service are either bribed, intimidated, or beaten into submission.
The police, even those who aren’t completely corrupt, are slow to believe that any one gang can be organized enough to take over the city. Only one, Sciajola (Marco Bocci), by piecing together small clues from disparate crime scenes understands the true nature of the gang. Even then, he’s constantly side-tracked by his superiors who never believe him.
As with any epic crime story about criminals who start from nowhere and rise to the top, the second season finds LIbanese, Fredo, and the gang slowly tearing themselves apart. Personal lives get complicated, petty jealousies turn to vicious resentments, and it all turns sour.
The series doesn’t shy away from the violent tendencies of these really rather horrible people. It doesn’t glamorize crime, but it sure keeps it riveting. The cast is universally excellent with Montanari’s portrayal as Libanese and Marchioni as Freddo being particularly good. The period fashions are also quite fun and watching it turn from the '70s to the early '80s is a hoot.
Romanzo Criminale is a bold, violent, exciting entry into the crowded crime genre on television. The title literally means “crime novel” and it unfolds like one. With each episode playing like a chapter in a book - full of interesting stories of its own but always with an eye towards the larger narrative. It's well worth your time.