Photo Credit: Goodreads
Last week, I accidentally binged on an Italian language series on Netflix.
Suburra: Blood on Rome is based on the novel Suburra by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo de Cataldo, itself a seminal exposé of Rome's criminal underbelly. Bonini is a journalist, de Cataldo a judge: they know intimately the corrupt nature of the city of Rome. This corruption is portrayed in Suburra: Blood on Rome and it is horrifying.
Halfway through the first season, I realised I had a problem as I rushed away from meetings to the guilty comfort of my sitting room.
Then, in season two, I seriously weighed up invitations for dinner depending on the plot line of this dark and tortured snapshot of politics in modern Rome. I was so far gone.
By the end of the week and the end of season two, with characters standing knee deep in blood and betrayal, they had set up season three and life in my own suburbia resumed its banal and steady march.
The series, Suburra: Blood on Rome (spelt Subura in Roman times), is set in an area of Rome that once sprawled from the Carinae - one of its most exclusive neighbourhoods, where many of the senatorial class lived – to the squalor of a crowded lower-class area that was also notorious as a red light district. Most of its inhabitants lived in insulae, tall apartment buildings with tabernae on the ground floor. Julius Caesar lived in a family home (domus) in the Suburra district until he was elected pontifex maximus at the age of 37. This district is now traversed by the Via Cavour and the Via dello Statuto and encompasses both the well to do suburb of Monti and the long walk from the Victor Emmanuel II monument passed the Forum to the Colosseum to its north.
Photo Credit: Indie Wire.
Oh, the layers of irony.
The world of Suburra: Blood on Rome plays out on the familiar streets of Rome. The Vatican, in all its scarlet and magenta potency, features like the pompous, hypocritical institution it has always been in Rome. But in the series, the red, the ornate gold, the crucifixes, the stilted formality and protocol is reflected in gilded mirrors by the Sinti families in their own enclaves.
The Sinti are a proud Romani people of Europe. Once they were itinerant travellers, but now, mainly in Rome, Naples and Milan, they frequently live on the outskirts of the city. The Sinti are closely related to the group known as Manouche in France and consequently they speak the Sinti-Manouche stream of Romani, which exhibits strong German and some old French influence. I found the language impenetrable, not being able to pick up a single word. Helpfully, they often broke into the local dialect, which is more accessible to an Italian ear.
I found this subplot absolutely mesmerising. The pride of the principal Sinti family - the Anacleti - is evident in their strong, upright and dignified bearing, their uneasy wealth ostentatious in the extreme. The son Spadino, by contrast, slouched and slithered, sneared and mocked. I identified so well with their values – respect, pride, family, survival, maintenance of culture and language but their ruthlessness, the dichotomy between their sincere religiosity and their flagrant disregard for life, left me shocked and bewildered.
The parallels between this milieu and the church were resounding: the dazzling colours of their clothes and interiors, the hypocrisy, the arrogance, the potency of men.
I had known little about the Sinti in Italy until Italy's loathsome far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini ordered a disturbing demand in early July for a report on the presence of Roma, Sinti and Camminanti settlements in Italy. Salvini, who is also leader of the alarming far-right, northern Italian Lega party, has called for non-Italians found amongst the Roma, Sinti, and Camminanti to be rounded up and sent back to their countries of origin. Now, where have we heard that?
The power play to become leaders of their
respective organisations acts out in four interwoven camps, each needing to wrest control of the seaside suburb of Ostia. The unholy quartet jostling for position is played by the Vatican, the Sinti family of Anacleti, and the gangster family of Adami, who join the pathetic players of Rome’s local politics, represented by Amadeo Cinaglia. This being Italy, the whole macabre dance is choreographed by the Sicilian mafia.
It is not an easy series to watch and we do not emerge unscathed. In the first few minutes of season one, there is a soulless, dispassionate orgy arranged for the needs of a powerful monsignor of Rome. The bodies soon pile up as people become disposable and superfluous. By season two we have been worn down by this amoral demi-world. We have become cynical and pragmatic, accepting that the refugee crisis will soon become as lucrative as drug trafficking for Church and State.
What held my interest was watching for the few moments of incongruous tenderness, the human condition writ large for the world to see, the need for love, acceptance and self worth.
Then I immersed myself in the sparse, unemotional script, the drawing of rounded characters so self absorbed, so vile, so unfamiliar. The story emerges unburdened by wholesome, pedestrian values of honesty, compassion and altruism. I had an unabashed impulse to see goodness triumph, even for a moment...but that would have been Hollywood, not Rome. I wanted just one character to have honour, principles, but everyone has a price. Is that true, I have to ask, of myself?
I loved the richness of the language – we skirted from standard Italian to the dialect of Rome, to the Sinti language, then peppered with the occasional Sicilian. Such an orchestration of sounds, mixed with perfectly pitched rap music, opera and a Cardinal listening to pop songs.
Glorious, but I had to engage sub titles to make sense of the cacophony of words and languages
And, of course, I am in love with the uncredited diva of the series – Rome itself.
Modern Rome – sophisticated and uber hip – is the star of Suburra: Blood on Rome. But it is as blood thirsty and amoral as ancient Rome. Life is cheap, sex is expensive and lives are traded with drugs, lies and secrets. I suffered many a frisson of recognition – there’s the bus stop that marks the beginning of pilgrimages to the Forum and Palatine Hill. Surely that’s the bar where I have often interrupted my shopping in Monti, and yes, I have had a Campari spritz on that very same balcony. The distinctive
patterned cobblestones in Piazza Campidoglio once claimed the heel of a pair of shoes I was wearing. The beachside suburb of Osti, once a sad, poor cousin to the centre of the city is now very desirable indeed: lives are lost to it, families torn apart as the Mafia schemes for a new port to smuggle drugs into the city. The half-built shell of Città dello Sport, a giant sports complex designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava for the University of Rome Tor Vergata, appears like a leitmotif throughout the two seasons as our three thug protagonists plan survival, success and conquest. Like their own lives, the impressive structure could have been magnificent if greed, graft and incompetence hadn’t taken over.
Photo Credit: spazi indecisi
Scenes are filmed in the modern and geometric EUR district conceptualised by Mussolini to project an image of imperialism, growth and excess. EUR’s aesthetic design is essentially a modernized version of ancient Rome, with its most iconic building, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (also called the Palazzo del Lavoro), a square version of the Colosseum. In the closing moments of season two, the two leaders of Church and State who have risen to the top of the bloodied cesspit, plot the next move in front of the Pyramid of Caio Cestio, one of the best-preserved buildings of ancient Rome.
Is there more to Suburra: Blood on Rome than the voyeuristic thrill of watching a world so far removed and yet so familiar, to see what lies beneath the cobblestones of a city I thought I knew so well?
I emerged feeling sullied and slightly dishonoured. Rome has been a fairy-tale, a carnival ride for me all my life, but there is no glamour here, only truth: it is time to grow up and see Rome clearly, for the first time. Suburra: Blood on Rome has lifted the veil and I ache for good, ordinary Romans who live their blighted lives under the rule of audacious, exalted criminals.
The people have not changed since ancient times and this is the same old world.