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November 2011

Angels of Evil

cast: Kim Rossi Stuart, Filippo Timi, Moritz Bleibtreu, Valeria Solarino, and Paz Vega

director: Michele Placido

125 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Vallanzasca - Gli angeli del male

Angel of Evil poster

L'Ange du mal
Angels Of Evil

Once upon a time, television was the poor relative of film. Films were creatively vibrant, formally innovative and their makers were not afraid to challenge their audiences in an effort to produce works of art that seemed somehow bigger and brighter. Compared to film's endless capacity for self-renewal, television seemed eternally beige, constrained by the need to appeal to the broadest possible audience without ever causing offence. Then something changed... As cable TV and the rise of the DVD boxset created new business models to rival the bland universality of previous decades, TV writers began to push the envelope of what could be achieved in a weakly hour-long serial.

Suddenly, people began to speak of the novelistic structure of some TV series as writers' ambitions expanded to fill the vast expanses of televisual time. The result of this creative renaissance was the so-called 'golden age' of TV and the birth of series such as The Sopranos and The Wire. Working in very different ways, these two series (and others like them) wrestled the creative high ground away from film and ushered us into psychologically complex and economically detailed worlds of fictional crime. Now the people who made crime films were on the back foot and crime films needed to reinvent themselves once more.

The most obvious attempt at reinvigorating crime films has been the rising popularity of films recounting the lives of real-world criminals. Owing much to such movie brat classics as Goodfellas, Casino, and The Godfather trilogy, these films combine traditional genre tropes with stylish visuals and a concerted effort at peaking behind the curtain at the inner workings of a real criminal enterprise. Jean-Francois Richet's Mesrine (2008) tried to unravel the mystery of a noted French criminal, while Olivier Assayas produced Carlos The Jackal (2010), a look at the figure of Carlos, and the underworld of 1970s' revolutionary politics. Largely overlooked at the time but rediscovered thanks to DVD and the popularity of Carlos and Mesrine, Michele Placido's Romanzo Criminale (2005) drew on both historical fact and novelisation to create a compelling vision of the 1970s Italian criminality. Placido's latest film Angels Of Evil (aka: Vallanzasca - Gli angeli del male) finds him returning to the crime biopic subgenre in order to tell the tale of the Italian crime boss Renato Vallanzasca.

Much like Romanzo Criminale, Angels Of Evil is a stylishly shot and beautifully made crime films with biographical aspirations. However, where Romanzo Criminale had historical fact and political commentary, Angels Of Evil has genre clich�. In fact, this film is so generic that its biographical elements rapidly come to resemble fig leaves designed to lend the appearance of intellectual substance to a film that really is all about the guns, the girls, and the cash.

Renato Vallanzasca (Kim Rossi Stuart) was born a crook but raised to be a criminal. The film begins with some wonderfully nostalgic and almost Fellini-like footage of Vallanzasca and his gang of teenaged tearaways sneaking through a circus in order to let a tiger out of its cage. The whimsical, flamboyant and yet highly dangerous nature of this crime highlights a tension within Vallanzasca's personality: here is a man with great skill and leadership potential but his capacity to lead others into danger is marred by a persistent failure to choose his capers wisely. In other words, Vallanzasca is a great crook but a terrible criminal.

The plot of Angels Of Evil is driven by a continuous confrontation between Vallanzasca the flamboyant child and Vallanzasca the ambitious career criminal. Using a series of spectacular set-pieces as well as their aftermaths, Placido shows us Vallanzasca's on-going attempt to temper childish whim with a more composed and careful approach to career management. For example, when one of Vallanzasca's friends runs afoul of underworld kingpin Francis Turatello (Francisco Scianna), Vallanzasca reponds by sticking up Turatello's casino and sending the money to every criminal locked away in prison. This gesture not only illustrates Vallazasca's loyalty and fondness for grand gestures, it also illustrates his complete lack of thoughtfulness as neither he nor his gang really benefited from the risks they undertook.

Slowly realising that childhood friendships do not necessarily make for the best of business partnerships, Vallanzasca builds and rebuilds a number of seemingly doomed gangs before eventually deciding the throw his lot in with Turatello as part of a hair-brained scheme designed to catapult both men into the celebrity stratosphere. However, while there is no doubting Vallanzasca's media instinct, his criminal instincts betray him yet again as Turatello is murdered in a gangland shake-up that leaves Vallanzasca isolated, alone and imprisoned. Hoping to re-launch his criminal career yet again, Vallanzasca escapes from prison and appears on the radio only to realise that, far from seeing him as a Robin Hood-style folk hero, the people of Italy actually hate his guts.

Though undeniably well made, Angels Of Evil suffers terribly from an overabundance of familiar elements: it is a film entirely composed of stock characters. Vallanzasca's first wife Consuelo (Valeria Solerino) is a beautiful woman who doesn't take any shit from anyone right up until the moment she meets Vallanzasca and promptly transforms into a long-suffering doormat with a sensible haircut. Similarly, the members of Vallanzasca's gang are differentiated solely through their facial hair and their professional characteristics including the capacity to ride a motorcycle at 125 mph, and make good use of a sub-machinegun. Even Turatello is something of a clich� as his charismatic public persona masks a psychopathic fondness for violence and a rather predictable obsession with his hair that has him visiting women's salons and sleeping in a hair-net. Anyone who has seen Goodfellas will recognise these sorts of characters and Goodfellas' influence means that they have spent the last 20 years appearing and re-appearing in every crime thriller you care to mention. Aside from being faintly depressing, Placido's refusal to depart from traditional genre stereotypes also serves to weaken his treatment of Vallanzasca himself.

While Stuart ably imbues Vallanzasca with the requisite amounts of animal magnetism and unpredictable intensity, Vallanzasca always comes across as your stereotypically doomed but charismatic antihero who never quite manages to overcome his own shortcomings. In other words, he is like every other criminal gang leader in cinematic history. Had the secondary characters only had a bit more substance then the strength of Stuart's performance might have been sufficient to blind us to the character's weaknesses but, watching Vallanzasca interact with his friends and foes it is impossible to deny how generic it all feels. Whenever a new character is introduced it is obvious not only how Vallanzasca will react to them but also how that relationship will progress. Of course, there is nothing wrong with genre tropes or stock characters but when a film presents itself as a biography, I think that audiences are entitled to demand a bit more psychological substance than Placido's beautifully shot stereotypes can offer.

For example, when Vallanzasca goes on the radio and is asked to explain himself his answer is that he is very much like other people but with a more pronounced dark side. If treated as a throwaway piece of dialogue, this line is both funny and self-deprecating given that it plays not only on Vallanzasca's capacity for violence but also the fact that this capacity has resulted in a film being made about him. Clearly, he is not just like other people. However, when treated as a biographical insight into a real historical figure, the line is nothing short of risible as it does not begin to explain what makes Vallanzasca tick. Indeed, rather than shed new light on Vallanzasca's true nature, the line only serves to shatter the film's biographical pretensions: this is a beautifully made film with almost nothing at all to say.

Had Angels Of Evil appeared in the 1990s then its combination of period setting and biographical pretence would have been nothing short of ground-breaking. However, because Angels Of Evil appeared at a time when everyone and her husband seem to be making crime bio-pics, the film's highly generic nature proves to be its undoing. Compared to the economic insight of Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007), the epic madness of Richet's Mesrine, the political complexity of Assayas' Carlos, and the minority perspective of Rachid Bouchareb's Hors-La-Loi (2010), Placido's style and pacing simply cannot compete.

Of course, I may be being unfair. Watching Angels Of Evil, I was reminded of Michael Mann's Public Enemies (2009). Though a relatively minor addition to the Mann back-catalogue, Public Enemies does try to address the question of whether criminals might not be affected by their depiction in popular culture. In Public Enemies, John Dillinger goes to the cinema to see a gangster movie in which a bank robber leaps theatrically over the counter. The next thing we see is Dillinger using the exact same move in one of his real-life bank robberies. A similar idea underpins the tendency of the characters in The Sopranos to quote Godfather dialogue at each other; clearly, when these people were growing up and learning their trade as criminals, they modelled themselves on media depictions of how gangsters dressed and how they behaved. Thus media depictions of criminal antiheroes become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy and genre fiction becomes real life.

My review of Angels Of Evil presupposes that Renato Vallanzasca had a rich inner life with complex and believable motivations that Placido simplified for the sake of making a film all about guns, girls and cash. However, what if Mann is correct about the relationship between criminals and popular culture? What if the real-life Vallanzasca really was a charismatic antihero who struggled with his own limitations in a life surrounded by people desperately modelling themselves after genre templates? What if the guy who could ride a motorcycle at 125 mph really did wake up and decide that that is what he would be?

Maybe using stock characters is not just lazy writing but a profound statement about our tendency to model ourselves after culturally acceptable role models? Are we all nothing more than clich�s and stock characters? Sadly, while it could very well be the case that Placido's retelling of Vallanzasca's life is entirely true to its source material, Placido never once suggests that Vallanzasca is anything other than a true original. Unlike Mann's Dillinger, Placido's Vallanzasca is never seen going to the cinema or reading a novel and so the suggestion that life imitates art is never really addressed.

At the end of the day, Angels Of Evil is simply too lightweight to survive in a culture where every day finds new ways for crime literature, film, and TV to excel. As a biopic it is too generic to be credible, as a character study it is too insubstantial to be compelling and as a crime thriller it is too safe to be truly memorable. We are living through a real golden age in media depictions of crime and mere competence simply has no place in a golden age.

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