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Now in English! The Italian Crime Thriller, Suburra, that Inspired both a Film and a Netflix Series

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on September 7, 2017

Italy has become stiff competition for Mexico these days in matters of film, and TV series about organized crime. Books, of course, have been the catalyst for nearly all of these recent adaptations. First, in 2005 the powerful and award-winning film Romanzo Criminale, adapted from Giancarlo De Cataldo’s same-titled book put the spotlight on a real-life criminal organization located in Rome. (There was also a TV series). Three years later, the grim and chilling film, Gomorrah, based on Roberto Saviano’s book about the Neapolitan Camorra was released. Then, in 2014, the masterful and terrifyingly dark TV series, Gomorrah aired in over 130 countries, running on the SundanceTV channel in the US. Audiences’ appetites were most definitely whetted. One year later, the brutal crime thriller, Suburra, based on the book of the same name by Carlo Bonini and Romanzo Criminale author Giancarlo De Cataldo, was released. It will also become a Netflix series launching this October. Suburra, the book, which was published in 2013 in Italy, is just out in English, translated by Anthony Shugaar. But more on this a little later…

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Crime fiction got a relatively late start in Italy as Mussolini thought it reflected badly on the country. So even if organized crime has been in existence since the 18th century, books about it only began to emerge in the mid 20th century. 

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Franco Nero and Claudia Cardinale in The Day of the Owl

One of the best that exists in English translation is Leonardo Sciascia’s 1961 The Day of the Owl. (It was made into a 1968 film with Claudia Cardinale). Although subtle and mystical, it brings home the stark reality of the Mafia in a lasting way, something that Mario Puzo’s best-selling 1969 The Godfather did not manage to do, although it could be the unmeasurable difference in the quality of the writing. Puzo’s Mafia seems far-removed—the story is set in the 1940s and 50s and it was really the success of the films that left an indelible mark on the public. There have since been some outstanding non-fiction books about the Mafia, such as Alexander Stille’s 1996 Excellent Cadavers, which described the battle waged on organized crime in the 1980s by the Sicilian prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both of whom were assassinated by the Mafia. But the recent surge in interest in Italian crime really came with journalist Roberto Saviano’s 2006 documentary fiction book, Gomorrah, on organized crime in Naples. (Since the publication of his novel Saviano has faced death threats and lives under armed guard.)

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To get back to Suburra, which is set in Rome and Ostia, on the outskirts of Rome next to what was the city's ancient port: it is a realistic, riveting and depressing portrait of the capital during the final days of the Berlusconi government. The socio-economic fabric is unraveling and criminal interests bring together politicians, members of the Catholic Church and the police. The novel is named after a neighborhood in Ancient Rome in which crime and prostitution were rife. In an interview with the online magazine Empire, the director of the film adaptation of Suburra, Stefano Sollima, said “My pitch is that nothing [in Rome] has really changed…this is the way that power goes. What is interesting here is in the past, you had poor people aiming to get a better life through crime. Today, they no longer dream of a better life. They’re criminals in a cycle.”

Whereas the film is relentlessly blood-spattered, the novel has the pages in which to develop the characters, give some comic relief and explain the various sub-plots. In one scene, the vicious and none-too-bright character, Number Eight, is planning to murder Paja and Fieno, henchman for one of his criminal rivals, by running them over with his car, the way the poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in 1975 in Ostia.


“He was going to do for Paja and Fieno at the Idroscalo, at the beach in Ostia. That’s right, at the Idroscalo, like that other guy, what was his name, the one who made dirty movies…Ah, that’s right, Pasolini. And he was going to do for them the same exact way.”

The authors, Carlo Bonini, a writer and journalist for Rome’s most respected daily, La Repubblica, and Giancarlo De Cataldo, novelist, screenwriter and a judge on Rome’s circuit court know what they’re talking about. They fearlessly describe real-life corruption that has tentacles reaching into every corner, and relentless criminal and political opportunism. But they never lose sight of the fact that Suburra is a crime thriller, and an excellent and entertaining one at that.

For many, and above all for the Italians themselves, it is saddening that such extreme violence and corruption ranging from the Vatican to the lower echelons of society coexist with the loveliness of rolling Tuscan hills, rows of cypress trees, or magnificent dilapidated palaces in Palermo. But this is the complicated reality that is Italy. 

Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty. She is based in Paris.

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