Recently honored with 14 nominations and eight wins at the Italian film awards, Crime Novel is a gangster film with something of an epic feel, despite a seemingly narrow focus on a small group of friends. Beginning in the late 1960s, when all of its subjects are still bored, invincible teens, the film traces their rise from bumbling obscurity to one of the most feared criminal gangs in Italy, as well as their inevitable decline. Michele Placido’s film is based on a novel of the same name which, in turn, grew out of the story of a real-life Roman gang that was active from 1977-1992. Because of the film’s roots in reality, one assumes that it has a special power and immediacy to Italian audiences; this may well explain that country’s enthusiastic response a film that, while sporadically engaging, is also over-long (a punishing 150 minutes) and poorly-paced.
After completing their first stints in jail, a group of friends are brought together by the one known as Lebanese (as a teen, he named himself after the source of the hash he liked to smoke) to kidnap a wealthy man for ransom. Though the group is a fairly large one, a small core quickly emerges, and it is on those three men -- Lebanese (Pierfrancesco Favino), Ice (Kim Rossi Stuart), and Dandy (Claudio Santamaria) -- that Crime Novel keeps its focus. The kidnapping doesn’t go quite as planned, but the group nevertheless ends up with a substantial ransom, the majority of which Lebanese persuades them to invest in drugs. Instead of steering clear of the crime gangs that dominate Rome, under Lebanese's leadership, they make brutal, unexpected war on those in power, gleefully killing anyone who stands in their way.
As their status and power increase, each member of the central trio handles success in his own way. Dandy takes the most predictable path, losing himself in women, drugs, and fine clothes, while Ice helplessly falls head-over-heels in love with his little brother’s tutor, a woman who has no idea what his life entails. Lebanese, meanwhile, becomes increasingly focused on expanding their reach, going so far as to become involved with a shadowy government agency for whom he does occasional favors. Despite the changes, however, the three men at first manage to remain close, trusting one another implicitly, and taking action only for the good of the group.
Eventually, though, they grow apart. Lebanese stops trusting Ice because of the latter’s wide-eyed love for an outsider, while Lebanese’s ambition begins to push even his friends’ limits. And so, as in any gangster movie, the inescapable downfall begins. In the case of Crime Novel, the downfall leads to a total change in the movie’s approach to storytelling. What had been a collective story, the movie suddenly becomes a series of distinct ones, set apart by on-screen titles (“ICE,” for example, gets his own segment) and fairly independent content. Suddenly, the tension and danger of the movie is drained away, replaced by tedious personal tales about characters that struggle to hold our attention.
Another problem with the second half of the film is that it suffers terribly from the death of its most complex, engaging character. When the magnetic center around which the entire movie revolved suddenly vanishes, a vacuum takes his place, and it’s almost impossible for the film to regain its footing. The audience can’t, after all, help but remember what has been lost. Like The Talented Mr. Ripley, which suffers a similar loss, Crime Novel never recovers.
That said, there are some major positives to the film, as well. The first half contains some incredible, all-encompassing moments of tension that are well-acted and wonderfully-directed. In addition, when possible, Placido mixes television footage of real events into his film, a touch that reminds non-Italian viewers how closely the story he tells sometimes hews to history. Crime Novel’s greatest strength, however, is undoubtedly the performance of Pierfrancesco Favino as Lebanese. Awarded Italy’s best supporting actor prize for his work in the film, Favino is excruciatingly convincing as a character whose past completely controls his actions. Still burning with memories of being disrespected as a youth, Lebanese is driven by a terrifying ambitions to never be in that position again; he aspires to emulate not great gangsters, but dictators with big ideas, delusions of grandeur and, most importantly, ultimate power; men like Hitler, and Mussolini. The actor does a magnificent job of convincingly aging over the nearly two decades the film covers, allowing the year to express themselves in the form of a darkness in his eyes rather than lines on his skin. As his character ages, close-ups reveal totally different things in those eyes, from naked ambition, to doubt, to mistrust, and finally to a distant sort of disgust at the world around him. For Favino, it’s the performance of a lifetime; for audiences, it’s the saving grace of an otherwise uneven film.