Crime Novel, an Italian film that had its North American premiere recently at the Tribeca Film Festival, is an epic, in-depth look at the rise and fall of a real-life Roman crime syndicate. Taking just a few central figures as its focus, the movie covers nearly 20 years of the group's history, and, along with Nanni Moretti's Cannes-bound The Caiman, was the big winner at this year's Italian Oscars (properly called the David di Donatello Awards). Though the film's eight awards were primarily for things like design and cinematography, Pierfrancesco Favino, who plays Lebanese -- the gang's driving force, and easily the best thing in the film -- was named the year's best supporting actor.

Favino sat down with Cinematical on the morning before Crime Novel's premiere, and proved to have a tremendous passion for film, acting, and European culture. In Part One of the interview, he addresses the film and its historical and culture contexts (beware of spoilers!), as well as the effect it's had on his life. In Part Two, coming soon, he'll talk in more general terms about acting, as well as his career and Italian cinema as a whole.

Finally, a note: Favino's English is fantastic for communicating, but transfered to the page, it can be bit a bit difficult to sort out if you've not heard him speaking. To that end, I've done more editing than usual -- all changes to his words (noted, of course, by ellipses or brackets) were done only for the sake of clarity; his meaning and intent are never adjusted.

Congratulations on your David -- that must have been a great night.

You don't really work for awards, but when they come it's ... nice. I had other nominations, but this is the first time that I got the award; I have to admit it's better when you win. You're up there with these people watching you and you've got [it] ... you know, it's strange. But I'm not that kind of guy to be "Wow, I've wanted this for all my life!" It's something that happened and it's really good, but to me what's really good now is that people in the street want to talk to you about their feelings about the movie.

You enjoy that?

As an actor, what you really want to do is communicate with people -- this is my aim, my principle aim. If you find somebody who feels the ... story you're telling belongs to him, and he wants to tell you how he -- or she -- lived that moment ... that is [wonderful]. ... You know, maybe they don't know my name, but they know everything I did. Which is beautiful; you know [it means that] you're good at your job.

Crime Novel deals with fairly recent history -- does that affect how people respond to it?

I think it's a combination -- the movie is taken from a novel --

The novel [also called Crime Novel] is based on historical events, right?

It's true, but ...  [in the novel] those characters have not the potential they have in the movie. I think that [director] Michele Placido got a very good intuition and turned the whole story into something mythical ... into something really classical, while if you read the true story, you could say that these were very normal people. They're criminals, but they didn't have that kind of ... power, so what [Placido] did was transform that real events into something that could be meaningful. ... [The movie is] telling a story that could be Shakespeare or could be Homer -- I mean, [it has] classical roots, [but] at the same time it's something like Ellroy's literature, and there's this pattern of 'crime novels' that is always at work. And you have a true story but you [also] have their relationships, so you have friendship, you have love ... I mean, at the end, you support them, you want to know what happens between them. ... They've become your heroes -- which is not to say that they are positive to you, but ... they make things happen, so they become your protagonists of the story.

But of course, [apart from] the real images everybody remembers of that period [the film includes newsreel footage of historical events], nobody knew what was going on underneath. ... It's [actually] not very well known, this story.

Really?!

Yeah! Nobody except for people living in Rome knew a lot about Banda Magliana [the gang depicted in the film]. We knew that it existed, but we didn't know how many connections they had with politics, with mafia ... Everybody knew that Aldo Moro's been killed, everybody knew that the Pope has been shot ... But [the background] was not a popular story.

See, I was imagining that it was a very widely-known story, so the movie was coming up against a popular knowledge of the events.

Well, if you talk about it in Rome, everybody's gonna tell you "Well, I knew them," but it's kind of legend. Everybody says "I know they were killers, I know they were drug dealers, but they protected us" -- it's kind of Robin Hood, but you can feel that it's not true. You can feel that everybody wants to belong to that story ... [But] you can't really tell who [the characters] were. That's why I was telling you that it's based on a real story, but it's completely different.

I've read that the novel has very cinematical qualities. Does De Cataldo [the author] use real-life characters?

Yeah. But ... they're mixed. There were more people that did ... [these] things; the author decided to ... compress [them] into one character's actions instead of many. And ... you never know what happened between them -- we don't know if they were friends, we don't know if they betrayed one another in the way [they do in the story], if they loved those girls or not.

To me ... once you were reading the book, you felt like it was cinema; what the author wanted to do translates [well] to the screen. [De Cataldo] loves cinema, [before Crime Novel] he ... was already a screenwriter. You can feel that he likes Once Upon a Time in America, or Scorsese's movies.

But [in the movie] we wanted to do something different -- we wanted to do something that could be rooted in our culture. It would be suicide to try to imitate Bob De Niro or Al Pacino. [Had we done that], I guess we wouldn't be here; there would be no interest in something that [was] an imitation or something that has been so, so popular.

I don't know. If you take a familiar genre and do it very well, I think there's still an interest in it.

Yeah, [but] it's a challenge. It was a challenge -- I mean, I really wanted to forget about those movies -- which I love.

That must have been very difficult for everyone.

In a way. ... It's something that is in your mind. We grew up with that kind of cinema, so we can't escape it. I mean, all of a sudden, you look at yourself and you say "Ooooh. My God, I'm imitating somebody. I don't even know who it is!" Except for Claudio [Santamaria, who plays the flashy Dandy] ... who wanted to do that because he thought that his character liked that kind of movie, so he wanted to ... play with it. So the way he moves, the way he plays with the gun is a kind of cliché. But for Kim [Rossi Stuart, who plays Ice] and me it was different. We wanted to do something that was based on Roman culture. Now, I know you watch it with [subtitles] ...

I was going to ask you about that -- in what I've read about the movie, the language is mentioned all the time. Do the characters speak in a very regional Roman dialect?

Yes, but also [we use] a slang that you don't find anymore. As you know, slang changes every three months ...

Oh, so it's period as well?

Yes, you can't find anybody talking that way [now]. The Roman [dialect] is much more of a sound than about words; there's not really a Roman vocabulary anymore. (There was one until the beginning of the century, but it [was] lost ... now you can't find anybody there that talks that way.)

[In addition to dialect and period slang], we [also] tried to do something that could be based on literature rather than on a real way of speaking. So to me, for example, the association [is with] Pasolini, or [other Italian writers] -- [the their writing] they somehow quoted the way of speaking. And [to emulate that] gave also a kind of distance between what we were doing and what we were representing. In a way it was an attempt to heighten a little bit -- not to be really realistic, but to try to be symbolic.

That's fascinating. So how much are audiences (like Americans) who see the film with subtitles losing, when we have no way of understanding the complexities behind the language, or even of that very specific period of Italian history?

Well, I think what works everywhere is the plot. And what works everywhere are the relationships. ... Honestly, I can't tell you what you lose, but I mean, to me -- [for example] I saw La Haine in its original version, and I couldn't get one world, but I know French people who couldn't [either] because it's in ... slang -- but what you get is an energy. When you understand the troubles ... of the characters, you understand their feelings, you understand their passion -- you understand what goes on.

I [do] think that what could detach [foreign audiences] a little bit is what is particular of the Italian history. If you try to compare this -- and this is what I want to say tonight [at the premiere] -- if you try to compare the kidnapping, and the assassination of Aldo Moro to what happened here with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, more or less it's something like that. It's like killing the father of a nation, so the whole nation goes nuts -- you don't understand what's going on; it's like the entire world going out of joint.

Plus, the only criminal organization you know is Mafia. And I'm not really proud to say it, but we had also others [laughs] -- especially during that period. We had a very tough political terrorism.

Like the Red Brigades?

The Red Brigades, yes, but on the other hand, the bomb that is in the movie [the Naples train station is blown up] ... that bomb is now supposed to [have been] placed by the fascists. So, it was a moment when Europe in general was in trouble, with [violent political groups]. ...And [in Italy there were also problems from] the secret services, and political corruption, and the CIA working in Italy. [Plus], our secret services were not [working] properly for the government but trying to manipulate other things ... The volatility [in Italy] didn't really lift until 1989.

The Red Brigades, Aldo Moro -- that is what we know, that is what we saw, that is what belongs to our imagination, but a lot of other thing which we don't know were going on that were maybe more dangerous, and more threatening. ... But normal people [don't know about them]; you can't find anything [about the deep corruption] in newspapers -- you can find something on the net, but you never know what the sources are. I mean, as per all the politics in the world: there's 5% that we know, and 95% that [we don't] -- it's the same for us. I guess that [if] there's a thesis of the novel, it's that those that we consider the bad guys might be manipulated by those that we consider the good guys.

With that in mind, was there any backlash to the movie, and its sympathetic portrayal of these real-life gangsters?
 
Well, as I was saying before, to me the word "hero" hasn't got positive or negative value -- "hero" is the person who leads you through the story. Then of course, if I follow them, and I live the story through their point of view, I can't [help] but sympathize with them, because they are those ... whose feelings I support. And -- this is interesting -- at the end of the movie, if I cry because some [asshole] is dying, this should make me think about my categories of good and evil. And it's always been like this, I mean ... we feel pity for Oedipus! And we know ... from the beginning that he killed his father and is sleeping with his mother -- I mean, come on ... All these people are dying, and you're going 'Hey you, there! Pay attention!' I mean, this is about ... Aristotle -- it's not about us!

In the US, when films come out that revolve around real-life historical figures -- like Oliver Stone's films -- there's always people saying "You shouldn't be portraying these people sympathetically," or calling the work dishonest because it doesn't fit into their perceptions of history. Did anyone respond that way to Crime Novel?

Well, let's look at how they end up -- I mean, they all die. And, at the end, those who survive are the ones that now lead the country; the policeman got a [promotion], and he becomes the chief of police ... [by] following the rules and being dishonest with himself. ...But what about Once Upon a Time in America? I mean, we know that they are gangsters, and [we still sympathize with them].

Look for Part Two of this conversation later this week, in which Favino explores in detail what it means to be an actor, and discusses his work in Shawn Levy's Night at the Museum (yes, he's really in it).