While waiting for the cover of night to kidnap and blackmail a priest, two young Italian mobsters—principal characters in Suburra: Blood on Rome, an excellent new crime series from Netflix and RAI—kill time in a volcanic spring outside town. They are an unlikely pair: Aureliano Adami, a sadistic, nativistic, homophobic MMA enthusiast; and Spadino Anacleti, a closeted Sinti whose family is at odds with Aureliano’s. By this point, their mutual suspicion and contempt has given way to friendship, and as they sit and soak, Aureliano asks Spadino how things are going with his wife, intuiting that all is not well, though blithely unaware why. When he asks Spadino to rub some of the spring’s mud on a part of his back he can’t reach, it is clear in the look that flashes across Spadino’s face that he is in love with Aureliano. Afraid to give himself away, he pats the mud on Aureliano at arm’s length, resisting when Aureliano tries to return the favor. In the scene’s final moments, Aureliano closes his eyes and floats as Spadino watches him.
Even amidst Rome’s gaudy beauty, the staccato bursts of violence, and the elaborately choreographed sex scenes—particularly the show’s opening orgy, which resembles a tangle of deviant, writhing Bernini sculptures—the surprising and ultimately tragic intimacy that develops between Aureliano and Spadino stands out as one of Suburra’s great pleasures, setting it apart from the plodding, grisly portentousness of contemporary prestige crime dramas such as Narcos. Though technically a prequel to a film of the same name directed by Stefano Sollima, itself adapted from a novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo and Carlo Bonini—a judge and a journalist, respectively—the series far outshines both.
It follows three fledgling criminals: Lele, the drug-dealing son of a Roman policeman; Aureliano, the son of a mid-level Ostiense mobster; and Spadino, the scion of a Sinti mafia family. They are brought together by their joint blackmailing of a priest, Father Theodosiou, who, in the show’s opening scene, suffers a heart attack while participating in an orgy organized in his honor. Their scheme soon reveals greater riches to be had: a parcel of land in Rome’s seaside neighborhood, Ostia, being sold by the Vatican. On the council overseeing the land’s sale sits none other than poor Father Theodosiou (whom the boys affectionately refer to, in the show’s game if occasionally inaccurate subtitles, as Friar Fuck). Their ambitions bring the young men into the full light of la Roma che conta: the aristos, politicians, titans of business, and criminal kingpins who make up the Rome that matters—all of whom, it seems, are also angling for the land.
Working behind the scenes is Samurai, a soft spoken neo-fascist-turned-gangster who sits at the apex of Rome’s criminal world and acts, in turn, as the middleman for the even more predatory Sicilian mafia, which wants to build a port on the Ostia land in order to flood Rome with cocaine. As the Sicilians send Samurai periodic menacing reminders of the price of failure, he intimidates, wheedles, and corrupts everyone in his path. Among his victims are Amedeo Cinaglia, a disillusioned leftist politician; and Sara Monaschi, who sits on Father Theodosiou’s council as an auditor, organizing Father’s “carefree evenings” as a means of guiding the sale of the land to her husband’s architectural firm.
The show, taking place in Rome’s city center and peripheries, is gorgeous. There are the familiar, if still lovely, aerial shots of the city and of St. Peter’s, but here Rome is most striking as a backdrop: a nighttime chase through Trastevere lit by the glow of damp cobblestones, a meeting on a bridge over the Tiber with the Vatican looming in the distance, the afternoon skies in pink and blue. There is beauty in the city’s grime, too: Ostia’s wintery beaches littered with chairs and umbrellas; the roadside snackbar where Samurai conducts his business, lit by a garish battery of highway lamps; the webbed white-steel husk of an unfinished sports stadium, the boys’ preferred spot for clandestine meetings.
Suburra is loosely based on an actual scandal, known as Mafia Capitale, that first broke in 2014, when it was revealed that a crime ring run by Massimo Carminati, a one-eyed, former fascist gangster (the model for the character Samurai), had so thoroughly infiltrated Roman business, government, and the operation of its municipal services that the city was barely able to collect trash or run buses in his absence. The scandal’s effects are still being felt: Italian prosecutors recently began a corruption trial to determine whether the city’s former mayor, Gianni Alemanno, accepted roughly 300,000 euros from Carminati, who is variously known as Il pirato and Il re di Roma (the king of Rome). The news was a shock to the city: though bribery and corruption are ingrained in all strata of Italian society, northerners tended to think—not without a sniff of condescension—that organized crime, like La Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the ’Ndrangheta in Calabria, and the Camorra in Campania, is endemic only to Italy’s impoverished south, the mezzogiorno. Although Italian courts ultimately ruled that Carminati was not guilty of mafia association, the presence of such pervasive and organized crime in the city unsettled its residents.
For many Romans, the news brought to mind an unpleasant memory: the Banda della Magliana, an infamous criminal organization active during gli anni di piombo, the period of widespread left- and right-wing extremist violence that plagued Italy from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. The group’s rise and fall was the subject of an excellent series released in Italy in 2008 (and here in 2016), Romanzo Criminale—like Suburra, based on a novel by De Cataldo—that functions as a kind of loose prequel to Suburra. The gang, which got its start with the prominent kidnapping of an Italian noble, came to dominate the city’s drug trade, and eventually developed ties with far-right terrorist organizations like Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (NAR), which was widely believed responsible for the 1980 bombing of Bologna’s train station that killed eighty-five people and wounded more than two hundred. One of the NAR’s most notorious members was a young Massimo Carminati, who provided the inspiration in Romanzo Criminale for a ghoulish young neo-fascist named Il Nero.
Both shows have their problems—a distracting amount of 1970s period detail in Romanzo Criminale (wide lapels, bushy Tom Selleck moustaches, an episode in which Sylvester plays on almost constant loop), and in Suburra an occasional penchant for eye-rolling melodrama. But their shortcomings don’t distract too much from the pleasures of either. Suburra, in particular, manages to combine the pacing of a thriller with an almost sociological diorama of Roman society, a slicker, abbreviated version of The Wire’s portrait of Baltimore. It is hardly comprehensive, of course; one group that gets unfortunately short shrift is the legion of migrants and refugees who have arrived in the country over the past ten years, especially the women, many of whom come to Italy as unwitting participants in the sex trade (of 11,000 Nigerian women who arrived in Italy in 2016, around 9,000 were trafficked specifically for sexual slavery in Italy and beyond, writes Barbie Latza Nadeau, Rome bureau chief for the Daily Beast, in her new book, Roadmap to Hell: Sex, Drugs and Guns on the Mafia Coast).
In the Mafia Capitale investigation, it came to light that Carminati’s greatest profits seemed to come from skimming money meant to pay for state-funded refugee housing. “Do you have any idea how much I make on these immigrants?” Salvatore Buzzi, Carminati’s associate, said on a tapped phone call. “Drug trafficking is less profitable.” Suburra hints in its final moments that a second season would take up the matter. The first season makes do with Isabelle, Aureliano’s girlfriend, a prostitute who dreams idly of returning to her sister across the Mediterranean, and whose screen time is too limited. She briefly tries to leave the sex trade, eventually returning to her pimp, who, after making a half-hearted offer to take care of whoever left her with the bruises covering her face, gets down to business: “Listen, I’ve got an important client, a guy who’s rolling in cash. He’s looking for someone like you, nice and dark.” A few seconds pass before she responds. “This city makes me sick,” she says, looking out a window. “It’s a shithole.”