I discovered this subtitled Italian film randomly on Netflix late one night. I liked the description, and recognized Pierfrancesco Favino, actor in the Ron Howard films Angels & Demons and Rush, and thought I'd give it a shot. I was mesmerized for the next two plus hours. And in the next couple weeks, had watched the movie 4 times. I'll probably watch it again soon. This film is that good.
The surface story revolves around an aging but feared and respected gangster named "Samurai" (cool name huh?) who, on behalf of the "Southern Families", schemes to use the Vatican, Roman politicians and other gangsters to turn the quiet beach town of Ostia into the "New Las Vegas" - a project that could ultimately bring in billions. Worlds collide during Samurai's quest, and no one gets out unscathed - not the priests, politicians, pimps, party planners, prostitutes, gangsters, or gunmen. Everyone involved in, even tangentially connected to, these dirty deeds gets a comeuppance of some kind. And this is where we find the substance of the film.
Because this is really a story about dreams and nightmares - the dreams the characters have, that because of their not so wise choices, become nightmares they might not survive. The gangster Samurai (Claudio Amendola) is old school. A quiet but imposing man, he has an old slash scar across his throat. We can sense he's a "been there, done it all type", a man "committed to the idea", as one character puts it. And if he can make this idea of a "New Las Vegas" a reality, he'll finally be able to retire once and for all.
The politician Filippo Malgradi (Favino) is another dreamer. He dreams that he can balance a double life, one as a well-respected, possibly corrupt politician and family man, the other as a man of many vices, including crack smoker and user of underage prostitutes. The latter, unsurprisingly, gets him into much trouble, and leaves him exposed to blackmail, which ultimately sets the tragedy of the story in motion.
The young Ostia gangster, bald and bearded "Number 8" - so called because the number 8 he has tattooed on the back of his skull (portrayed with excellent menace and subtle insecurity by Alessandro Borghi) dreams of being respected, of stepping out from his father's shadow. His father licked the "rear ends" (politely put) of the Southern Families, and 8 wants to do no such thing. But to avoid that, he has to obtain all the property contracts for the Ostia waterfront, by any means necessary. 8 has quite the chip on his shoulder, wanting respect but not wanting to wait for it. He displays a subtle twitch whenever challenged, whether its by a superior, such as Samurai, or an inferior, such as the young gypsy gangster Dagger, who seeks to blackmail politician Malgradi. 8 is completely capable of battering someone into submission or stabbing them in the throat because of the slightest insult, but incapable of sacrificing what it takes to achieve his dreams - his ego. In this respect he might be the film's most interesting, and tragic character. Much credit to the actor Borghi - he's got a bright career ahead of him.
The film's standout scene involves Number 8. At night he stands in his lavish beach front house at a foggy window, pouring rain outside. His girlfriend asleep behind him, we see him wrapped in his own world, a sparkle in his eyes, as he traces a line across the window, and describes the magnificence of what his "New Las Vegas" will be like - the key to the respectability he so desperately desires. On the opposite beach, we see the lights of this dream appear and brighten - ambient dreamlike music accompanying it. It's a simple, but stylish, almost fairy tale like scene. Soon, the lights begin to fade, as 8's dream will soon fade. Inevitably 8's next scene is a nightmare, as he's attacked in a mall where he's making a collection. The rest of the film is a nightmare for each of its characters, as plans and dreams fall apart, and the selfish, short-sighted decisions they've made, all come back to haunt them.
Top points go to the cinematography, which is at times gritty and seedy, other times soft and flashy, but always fitting. Credit also to the soundtrack. The group M83 makes multiple appearances. Some might think the repeated use of this ambient-pop type music overbearing, and even I did at first, but when I thought of it in the context that this is a film about dreams and nightmares, I realized how superbly fitting the music is.
Not enough can be said about the acting - half the characters I don't have time to get to, but they're all memorable, directing as well, writing too - just when you think someone might survive, you're shown just how silly you are. It's a superb film all around. To be followed by a Netflix TV series in 2017. Except we'll be seeing plenty of new faces, because as I said, dreams turn into nightmares for many characters in the film...