It is nearly impossible to characterize Michele Placido’s sprawling, ambitious, and elliptical gangster film, Crime Novel without raising the specter of Francesco Rosi’s seminal cinema on the murky atmosphere of corruption, nebulous alliances, terrorism, and widespread violence that defined the sociopolitical landscape of 1970s Italy. However, while Rosi’s disorienting ellipticism served to illustrate the power and moral vacuum caused by the protracted period of national instability, filmmaker Placido, screenwriters Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli (the screenwriting team behind Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Best of Youth), and novelist Giancarlo De Cataldo instead seem resolved – with the advantage of hindsight – to tidy up the protracted history of bombings, assassinations, and mafia executions into an overarching moral tale through the character introductions of an unimpeachable good cop, Commissioner Scialoja (Stefano Accorsi) who doggedly pursues a band of hoodlums believed to be the architects of a high-profile kidnapping, extortion, and subsequent murder of a prominent aristocrat, Baron Rossellini, through years of a profoundly transforming society, and a shadowy, omniscient State operative waiting in every conceivable wing to intervene in the messy affairs of turf wars, political intimidation, and criminal prosecution in order to set history on its correct course. In its depiction of the characters as witnesses to the unfolding of turbulent history, the film recalls Hou Hsiao Hsien’s A City of Sadness. However, while Hou creates a sense of peripherality to the misguided characters as a means of illustrating their social helplessness to the contemporary traumas paralyzing their country, the distance in Crime Novel instead seems to be elicited as much from the character’s oblivious self-absorption as it does from screenplay’s generic, contextual tangency (the kidnapping of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade, the bombing of the train station at Bologna, the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II) – a sense of narrative decentralization that is also reflected in the film’s chapter demarcated, strategic changes of perspective within the triumvirate of childhood friends who would inevitably oversee the activities of their rag tag syndicate (a device undoubtedly influenced by Luchino Visconti’s tale of fraternal downfall, Rocco and His Brothers): the cold and calculating Libanese (Pierfrancesco Favino) who envisions the ransom money as their entry into the larger payoff of Roman organized crime, the brooding Freddo (Kim Rossi Stuart) who finds in the sensitive, virginal tutor, Roberta (Jasmine Trinca) the possibility of a future without gang violence, and Dandi (Claudio Santamaria), an unpolished opportunist who sees their financial windfall as a means of reinventing himself and his lover Patrizia (Anna Mouglalis) to gain entry into social circles and upper class respectability. Unfortunately, this odd concoction of seeking to maintain a meticulous integrity to the story’s historical framework while conveniently engaging in revisionist dovetailing results in a film that, while indeed highly polished, elegantly rendered by a strong ensemble cast, and impeccably reconstructed period filmmaking, is also one that is encumbered with a sense of anecdotal historicity, familiar caricatures, overdesign, and pathological neatness.
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