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The Economist: Italian political drama is the new Nordic Noir

News

Feb 08 2016

“FOR 20 years Italian television has been populated by priests, saints, nuns and good policemen. We’ve been told audiences had to be reassured, that they should be told everything is good and that everything is going well,” says Ludovica Rampoldi, a writer on “1992” and “Gomorra”, two series that are not postcards from idyllic Italy. “But our society is one of the most conflicted and corrupt in Europe.”

Unravelling the sacred myths of the dolce vita is proving to be the perfect fix for those looking for their next hit of international television drama. Global audiences’ taste for edgier, darker stories is creating an opportunity for television providers to differentiate themselves in European markets. So far, these creative offerings have been gratefully received; Sky Italia’s “Romanzo Criminale”, “1992” (pictured) and “Gomorra” have been sold to hundreds of international territories—season two of “Gomorra” will air simultaneously across Sky's European networks this spring. Sky's next and most ambitious project, “The Young Pope”, is a partnership with HBO and will be directed by Oscar-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. Even Rai, the public broadcaster, has reacted to the increasingly international character of the industry today by collaborating with Netflix on "Suburra", a series about organised crime on the Roman coast. “European fiction is the new frontier for the big players like Sky, Amazon, and Netflix” says Stefano Sardo, the creator of “1992”. A deromanticised Italy is “the best time there’s been to be a writer in Italy for 30 years.”

American television exports have been saturating the market for years; viewers are increasingly turning towards productions that capture the particular characteristics and aesthetics of a region. “The Killing” and “The Bridge” are Scandinavian success stories—sold and remade all over the world, and influencing the production values of countries with far older and more established industries like Britain and America. The prevalence of Catholicism means Italians have an inclination towards the visual image. Hence the country produces great painters and film directors; they exploit colour and find beauty not only in Italy’s stunning landscapes and architecture, but also in the dishevelled estates of Naples and the ring roads that circle them.

Gomorra” is brimming with violence and beauty, so much so that at first it seems to be exploiting the myths and glamour it claims to critique. But Ms Rampoldi says that this is not the case. “These people do not have beautiful lives, they live in horrible places, are always in trouble and have horrible relationships with each other. There’s no ‘good guys’ against ‘bad guys’, there’s just ‘bad guys’, and ‘really bad guys’.” The series—inspired by journalist Roberto Saviano’s book of the same name—contrasts cinematic aesthetics with humanity at its worst. Teenage hooligans, fuelled by a cocktail of drugs, adrenaline, and motorcycle chases, appear to enjoy a hedonistic, intoxicating lifestyle. It almost appears desirable and beautiful until the next episode when, Ms Rampoldi points out, they are dead.

It is not only the police-action genre (poliziottesco) that has been reignited in the popular artistic consciousness, but political drama also. It is apt that a medium over which Silvio Berlusconi wielded so much control should now critique his time in power. Each of the ten episodes of “1992” (the next season—“1993”—is being written) represents a month, and tracks the “clean hands” operation that dismantled Italy’s corrupt hierarchy. It has a similar structure to “Game of Thrones” except that each character, rather than trying to reach the throne, is trying to get into parliament. Ms Rampoldi recalls her interviews with protagonists on both sides of the fence; “there was a glint in their eyes as they recalled the most beautiful time in their lives,” she says of the corrupt judges and businessmen—and of the police who brought their reign to an end.

The intertwining of sex and power was a defining feature of this era of Italian politics. Even those whom Mr Sardo describes as “more tolerant of human weakness and less hypocritical about the relationship between sex and politics” were indignant about Mr Berlusconi’s affairs. This chapter in Italy’s story is told through the lens of Veronica, a beautiful escort who sees vacuous celebrity as the only form of success that society can offer her. Ms Rampoldi argues that this reflects an ongoing trend: “For 20 years the media’s eyes on women have been sort of creepy…in newspapers women have been represented as cheating, always naked, not talking, or just dancing.”

Worldwide audience tastes are moving on from the dark moods and brooding landscapes of Nordic Noir, as demonstrated by this new era of colourful, passionate Italian series. But the themes of power, corruption, violence and sex remain as intoxicating as ever. “We have a deeper connection to pleasure”, says Mr Sardo. “This dark side of Italy has kind of a bright side.”