“Rome. Patricians, plebeians, politicians. Criminals, whores and priests. This place hasn’t changed in 2,000 years.” That’s the voice of experience talking in Netflix’s Suburra – experience of drugs and prostitutes. The Italian series, Netflix’s first original from the country, follows on from Stefano Sollima’s 2015 movie of the same name, a stylish, gritty thriller that exposed the underbelly of Italy’s capital with a grim brutality. Set several years before Sollima’s movie, the series is set to do exactly the same – with even more drugs and prostitutes.
The show gets its title from the ancient suburb of Rome, where the lower and upper class of the city mingled for debauched, violent and otherwise nasty purposes – a hive of immorality in the shadow of the Holy See. Today, nothing’s changed, argues the show. If anything, that suburb’s seediness has expanded across the whole city, so it’s perhaps only natural that it should kick off with the battle for a prized piece of land: the Ostia area near the port, a prime spot for some glamorous real estate development, not to mention a handy hub for drugs. And probably prostitutes.
Rezoning land for construction is hardly the stuff of nail-biting fiction, especially if True Detective Season 2 is anything to go by, but Suburra stuffs the legal disputes and political plays with so much sleaze, scandal and sinister threats that it swiftly sinks its hooks in. Within minutes, we’ve been treated to an absurdly over-shot orgy featuring an elderly man, Monsignor Theodosiou (Gerasimos Skiadaresis), who gyrates and adulates like a man who’s only just discovered his freedom. Naturally, he’s a senior member of the Vatican. And naturally, a group of characters find a video of this man of the cloth very much not wearing any cloth, and decide to blackmail him.
It’s this venture that introduces us to the show’s expansive, enigmatic ensemble – and they’re all brought to life with a enjoyably dirty veneer. There’s Spadino (the magnetic Giacomo Ferrara), young upstart in the Anacleti mafia family. There’s Aureliano (the intense Alessandro Borghi), son of the Adami family boss (Federico Tocci) and reckless thug to his smart sister Livia (Barbara Chichiarelli). And there’s Lele (Eduardo Valdarnni), the son of a cop who ends up in league with Aureliano, thanks to – you guessed it – drugs and hookers.
It goes without saying that the Adami and Anacleti clans dislike each other – and while Spadino finds himself in the middle of that spate, it’s Suburra’s interest in teasing out subtler character details, such as his closeted sexuality, which he has to hide as his family pressurises him into an unwanted marriage. Each character’s ethics are just as blurred, as between these gangsters young and old wanders veteran criminal Samurai (the cooly intimidating Francesco Acquaroli, reprising his scene-stealing role from the film) – a man to whom Lele owes a hefty chunk of cash. And if there’s one person you don’t want to be in debt to, it’s Samurai. He, meanwhile, is attempting to wield his influence on Cinaglia, perhaps the only politician in the city who isn’t totally bent. “All of Rome is my territory,” Samurai declares, as he crosses party lines from one side to the other.
It’s unsurprising – but no less disappointing – to see that Suburra’s world is largely male-driven, but there’s at least promising substance to be found in Sara (Claudia Gerini), the member of a Vatican board who is itching to claw her way from a supporting character to a main role. Sitting on a panel discussing who the Ostia land plot will be given to, she lobbies for her husband’s company – and, while Monsignor Theodosiou says that time must be taken to make the right decision for the church in the eyes of God, researching every party’s background thoroughly, we already know that under the surface lies a hypocritical man with lust to match his power. And so Sara offers him a relaxing night to help him make his decision sooner.
It’s a fearless performance from Gerini, who slots right in among the hissing nest of vipers: in this hushed, corrupt capital, everyone whispers in euphemisms – and those euphemisms almost always mean drugs and prostitutes. Shot with maximum flair, from the vivid, garish sex intro to the stunning tracking shot that captures St. Peter’s at night, Suburra is a familiar, but no less thrilling slice of Italian genre telly – the kind of bingeable montage of bad people doing worse things that’s ideal for late night winter viewing. All’s fair in love, war and land zoning regulations – and judging by the compelling opening episodes, that isn’t going to change by the end of the season.
Suburra: Blood on Rome: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.