Despite its soft-sounding title, Stefano Sollima’s crime drama is a gripping call-back to the heyday of poliziotteschi movies, a peculiarly Italian genre that dealt with inter-gang wars in a country where the police were often more venal than the bad guys. Adagio, though, takes a unique tack, borrowing from Martin Scorsese’s fatalistic masterpiece The Irishman to portray to tell a story in which a trio of gangsters — one blind, one suffering early-onset dementia, and another with terminal cancer — are forced to reunite against a team of bent cops involved in an elaborate blackmail plan.
There are shades of Elio Petri’s classic Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, too, although it takes a while for this to become obvious. Indeed, for some 45 minutes, Sollima keeps us guessing as to which side the villains are actually on, starting with a long sequence in which a young man named Manuel (Gianmarco Franchini) goes undercover at a decadent party called The Last Night of the World, where drag queens dance with rent boys and cocaine is freely available. Manuel is reporting to Vasco (Adrian Giannini), who is monitoring Manuel’s activities while making dinner for his two young sons, and his brief is to get incriminating images involving underage boys and illegal drugs. “You got no choice, remember?” growls Vasco.
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Manuel, realizing that the whole party is bugged and that he has been filmed snorting a line of coke, flips out and leaves before he is supposed to. His first port of call is an old family friend, Polniuman (Valeria Mastandrea), a former member of the Magliana gang. Polniuman is now blind but has lost none of his wits, and sends Manuel to another ex-criminal, Romeo Barretta (Pierfrancesco Favino, the charismatic star of Comandante), AKA The Camel, who has just been released from a psychiatric unit after 12 years inside for armed robbery and has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Romeo has moved in with his ex-wife Silvia, the mother of his young son Lollo, who was killed by police during the same botched heist. Manuel’s appearance, and the names he rattles off — heavy figures from the criminal past that Romeo is supposed to have left behind — makes Silvia furious. “You come back, they come back, then everything comes back,” she mutters darkly. Romeo sends Manuel away, but the boy hides out on his roof terrace anyway. But for some reason Romeo takes pity on Manuel, even though his father, former gang boss Daytona (Toni Servillo), is the architect of his misery. Daytona is the third wheel in this retired mobster clique, and he now paints a sad figure in the neighbourhood, living on a paltry mob pension, shuffling through the city streets and testing himself with simple maths exercises to keep at bay the episodes of Alzheimer’s that seem to come and go more frequently.
All three have quit the thug life, but what draws them back is the revelation that Vasco is a corrupt cop, in the pay of the mysterious “Broker”, who has turned to crime to pay for an acrimonious divorce. If Manuel identifies him, Vasco will go to prison, so a brutal internecine war breaks out between the two worlds, both sides governed by their own vicious codes of silence.
Surprisingly, Sollima’s film went into production without a full script, but the finished film is confident, sleek and intricately organised, often holding back vital information often until the last possible moment. There’s a charnel-house atmosphere to these affairs, made visual onscreen by overhead shots of Rome that show the city plunged into ever more regular power-cuts while, in the distance, a spate of wildfires give the horizon an infernal glow. Throughout, the temperature keeps rising (“This heat,” gasps Romeo. ”It’s not normal”), and the wildfires create voluminous clouds of ash, lending an oppressive air of end-times that is referenced repeatedly by the characters throughout.
Cast-wise, Sollima — showrunner of Gomorrah: The Series and ZeroZeroZero, as well as the director of the terrific Sicario sequel Day of the Soldado — has assembled something pretty special here, with Servillo up to his usual high standard as Daytona, who may or may not be playing a long game with his “dementia”. But best of all though is the terrific Favino, unrecognisable from Comandante with his entirely shaven head. Romeo is the emotional core of this melancholy character piece, returning, figuratively, to hell while Rome burns to cleanse his soul and, by saving Manuel, do what he couldn’t do for his own son.
Festival: Venice (Competition)
Director: Stefano Sollima
Screenwriters: Stefano Bises, Stefano Sollima
Cast: Pierfrancesco Favino, Toni Servillo, Adrian Giannini, Gianmarco Franchini
Running time: 2hr 7 min
Sales Agent: Vision Distribution
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