February 15, 2006

Likeable Italian killers stir Berlin Film Fest

By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN (Reuters) - Uneasy about their Mafia past and
especially Hollywood's portrayals of it, Italian filmmakers
have knocked down their own taboos in style with "Romanzo
Criminale" that drew cheers at the Berlin Film Festival on

Italian gangsters killing each other while remaining
likeable characters has been a staple of U.S. films for decades
but left Italy uncomfortable with the stereotypes.

The epic "Romanzo Criminale" (Crime Novel) filled a
Berlinale afternoon with 2-1/2 hours of stabbings, shootings,
bombs and almost every form of assassination imaginable.

Based on a book by a magistrate and crime writer Giancarlo
De Cataldo, it is set against a backdrop of the real life
graft, organized crime and terror attacks from the far left and
far right that racked Italy for 25 years from the early 1970s.

"Italy has never given proper thought to our history, our
criminal history," De Cataldo told a news conference after the
international premiere of the film, a box office hit at home
last year that won five Italian film prize awards last week.

"There were bombs, bloodshed, plots and conspiracies and
the secret service was mixed up in all this," he added, before
later comparing his story to U.S. gangster film "Good Fellas."

"Had all that ever been examined by serious historians, a
book like this would have been less shocking."

Films on heroic Italian prosecutors have appeared in Berlin
before but there was never anything that made killers likeable.

Local critics saw a parallel to very recent German films
that gave Adolf Hitler and top Nazis a human side; they shocked
at first but were huge box office hits in Germany and abroad.

"They are indeed human figures and they have their moments
where they are likeable," said director Michele Placido of the
story based on gangs that haunted Rome with a lucrative drugs
trade in the 1970s. He shows them fiercely loyal to each other.

"They're bad people too, but not as bad and evil as some
politicians. I wanted to give those from the margins a positive
side because it is those at the top of the pyramid who really
pull the strings of evil. They are the real bad guys."

Italy has shown some sensitivity about the image portrayed
in Hollywood films such as "The Godfather."

In 2004, Robert De Niro was denounced for promoting
"negative stereotypes" and a movement to give the American
actor who often plays Mafia characters honorary Italian
citizenship ran into stiff headwinds.

"This was a novel, a work of fiction that was written about
a particular era of Italian history," said De Cataldo.

"It's also the reality. It's not something Italians want to
remember. They turn away from it. Italy was under attack. There
was a violent struggle, from red (Communist) and black
(fascist) terror. The political echoes were clearly a big part
of it."