Suburra is ‘a rain-sodden neo-noir teeming with chiaroscuro characters’ says MacDara Conroy

Previously known for the small-screen adaptations of Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah, longtime TV director Stefano Sollima takes his preoccupations with Italian organised crime to a bigger stage in Suburra. Named for a lower-class area of ancient Rome, it’s an intricate web of a story tracing the exploits of the not-so-great and the not-so-good against a background of crooked property dealing as the days tick towards governmental collapse, vaguely based on the fall of Berlusconi in late 2011.

It’s a grim tale, too; a rain-sodden neo-noir teeming with chiaroscuro characters, none without sin. Not the dodgy parliamentarian (Pierfrancesco Favino) whose appetite for underage sex and smoking crack gets a teenage trafficking victim dumped in a lake for her troubles. Not the playboy (Elio Germano) who sells out a friend to cover his arse after ‘inheriting’ his father’s loan-shark debts. Not the second-generation thug (Alessandro Borghi) whose thoughtless violence – and drug-addled girlfriend (Greta Scarano) – attract the wrong kind of attention from upstart Roma gangsters and the criminal establishment alike.

Not the emissary for the ‘Families of the South’ (Claudio Amendola) whose love for his mother and respect for loyalty is only matched by his ruthlessness against transgressors. Not even the Vatican cardinal (Jean-Hugues Anglade) whose stake in the plan to transform Rome’s waterfront into a new Las Vegas taints the church with more than blood (as if that’s any surprise).

Redemption is attempted by some, but it’s ultimately futile. That’s the kind of awful world we’re dealing with here. You’ll probably need a stiff drink afterwards.

Suburra is unapologetically a film of extremes; everything about it is baroque and overblown. Sollima isn’t shy to echo the Renaissance masters in his scene-staging, or classical tragedy in the acute predicaments of his ensemble cast. There’s even a hint of Gaspar Noé in the heightened use of soundtrack, crescendos of heart-racing beats (courtesy of French electro-shoegazers M83) designed to disorient and overwhelm.

The result is a disturbing and effecting film in the tradition of Pasolini, a kind of Bosch-esque grotesquerie that nonetheless gets to the ugly truth at the rotten heart of the confluence of power and money. It’s easy to see why Sollima’s been tapped for the Sicario sequel, judging by the horrors he handles here with such confidence.

Also out this Friday is Elvis & Nixon, Liza Johnson’s comedy-drama riff on that iconic photo of Presley and the president. Co-written by Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), it’s a curio that falls between stools, not quite funny enough to be a comedy but too quirky for a drama. It works better, though, considered as a contrasting companion piece to Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, lighter in tone and more concerned with the non-Nixonian side of the equation.

In fact a more appropriate title might be Elvis & Jerry, since much of the story pivots on the relationship between Presley (Michael Shannon) and his best friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) as they and fellow Memphis Mafioso Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville) inveigle their way into the White House for an audience with the top dog (Kevin Spacey).

Colin Hanks and Evan Peters co-star in minor roles, alongside Tate Donovan and an underused Sky Ferreira. But the focus is on Shannon who, while not truly convincing as Elvis, essays the most dedicated of Elvis impersonators, really striving to get to the existential heart of a man who would be The King.

Suburra opens at Dublin’s Light House Cinema on Friday June 24th; Elvis & Nixon opens at select cinemas nationwide on the same date

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