Back to IndieWire

‘Suburra’ Review: Netflix’s Italian Answer to ‘Narcos’ Is a Stylish Mix of Violence, the Vatican, and at Least One Orgy

Contemporary Rome is the setting for widespread corruption in this sprawling, Italian-language crime thriller.

Alessandro Borghi, "Suburra"

Alessandro Borghi, “Suburra”

Netflix

Suburra” begins with two haunting and indelible images: the deserted St. Peter’s Basilica, as the camera backs slowly and forebodingly away from it, and then two minutes later, a frenetic, writhing, and illicit drug-fueled orgy. It’s this juxtaposition of the public veneer of Rome and its seedy underbelly that combine and form one sprawling world of corruption.

Read More: 7 New Netflix Shows to Binge in October, and The Best Episodes of Each

Set a few years before the events in the modern crime novel “Suburra” and its film adaptation of the same name, Netflix’s new series is the Italian answer to “Narcos” — but instead of drugs, a stretch of land is the coveted commodity. Also, very little law enforcement is present to keep the various criminals in check in this Italian-language thriller.

Giacomo Ferrara, "Suburra"

Giacomo Ferrara, “Suburra”

Emanuela Scarpa/Netflix

First, a warning, as the first episode requires time to digest what’s going on with all the various shady characters. Three young men destined to be united by one nefarious purpose start off apart: Aureliano Adami (Alessandro Borghi) is a peroxide blond thug whose sister is the brains of the operation; privileged Gabriele “Lele” Marchilli (Eduardo Valdarnini) is the son of a cop, but he provides drugs and other illicit offerings to partiers; and Alberto “Spadino” Anacleti (Giacomo Ferrara) is the son of a gangster family referred to as “gypsies.”

While these upstarts attempt to get their pieces of the perfidious pie, they have to contend with far more experienced and possibly more ruthless elders that include an ambitious woman with ties to the Vatican, a cardinal who participated in the aforementioned orgy, and a humble politician who finds that taking the high road isn’t the quickest way to get elected. But it’s the bespectacled man bafflingly referred to as Samurai (Francesco Acquaroli) who is the most intimidating yet nearly silent presence. Much like Slugworth in “Willy Wonka,” Samurai lurks behind pillars or near children, ready to offer a dead-eyed stare or tempting bribe.

Francesco Acquaroli, "Suburra"

Francesco Acquaroli, “Suburra”

Emanuela Scarpa/Netflix

Michele Placido directs the first two episodes given to critics for review, in which all of these machinations take time to set up. For every splashy scene involving sex or violence, there are at least five scenes where characters just talk. And yes, sometimes they talk about land. This meandering storytelling could be the series’ saving grace, however. While the film “Suburra” (directed by Stefano Sollima) delivered shocks and spectacle, its characterizations felt shallow and stereotypical — probably because it tried to pack too much into its 130-minute runtime.

In contrast, the prequel series has 10 episodes to fully breathe life into its players. The viewer must revel in every nuance and moment because this seems to be a show without any apparent heroes. But that’s perfectly OK with a cast this strong. Even when the finer points of the intrigues get muddled, at least the actors can convey the emotion of a scene with subtlety and clarity. It’s easy to believe that each of these people can be dangerous, whether it’s because of just the right edge of menace or an underlying desperation seeping through a glance.

"Suburra"

“Suburra”

Emanuela Scarpa/Netflix

For the U.S. viewer, “Suburra” also offers up virtual tourism with its breathtaking views of majestic architecture and seaside vibrancy. And yet that beauty is balanced by the bleakness of the lives making power plays, as depicted by the many scenes in which the characters are trapped within the frames of doorways and other stunning structural design elements. This is Rome of extremes and hard edges, unlike any of the charming and exotic depictions from the past or even the Italy in “Master of None.”

Furthermore, the soundtrack by electronic artist Loscil cannot be overstated. These tunes are viscerally present. They go beyond being a character in the show, but are the soul, the very lifeblood pulsing through each scene. Plug in the speakers or headphones for a sonic flow that is significant in its tonal impact.

“Suburra” is an experience saturated with color, sound, and sin. Ultimately it doesn’t seem to offer any insights into the human condition except that being rotten is pretty much universal. But its depiction of a modern-day Rome with all the evil that men do is a raw and compelling one, uncolored by sentiment and nostalgia. This could be Netflix’s next big foreign addiction.

Grade: B+

All 10 episodes of “Suburra” Season 1 are currently streaming on Netflix. Watch a trailer for the series below:

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , ,