Dir: Michele Placido.It-UK-Fr. 2005. 146mins.

The middle floor betweenItaly's auteur attic and its commercial bargain basement is curiously empty.Screenwriting duo Stefano Rulli and Sandro Petraglia are among the few to havemade their home here, scripting films like The Best Of Youth, which for all its symphonic, multi-linearstructure and often prickly political themes, contrived to hook a wideraudience with the double bait of strong characters and canny TV drama plotting.

Crime Novel is their Worst Of Youth: a dark, violent tale of therise and fall of the Banda della Magliana, the Roman organised crime outfitthat terrorised the capital between 1977 and 1992.

Though dogged by problems ofpacing, especially in its second hour, this Italian Goodfellas has a confidence that comes through in quickfireediting, a peppy pop soundtrack, and fine performances by Kim Rossi Stuart,Pierfrancesco Favino and Claudio Santamaria.

Directed by Michele Placido,the film goes into competition in Berlin more than four months after itsItalian release, when it put on just short of $6m (Euros 5m) in a remarkablysteady seven-week run. Subtitled, Crime Novel will play to more highbrow audiences abroad whichcould be a problem, as the film's commercial strength in Italy lay in itstrickle-down potential.

Giancarlo De Cataldo, theauthor of the bestselling novel on which the film is based, is a practicingjudge, and thus might have been expected to turn in a near-documentary accountof these dark and twisted years. Instead, in the novel, as in the film, thetrue history of the Banda Della Magliana is melted down and recast in purelyfictional mode.

Three characters, childhoodfriends and adult partners in crime, give Crime Novel its tripartite structure as one passes the baton ofleadership on to the next. The Lebanese (Pierfrancesco Favino) is the savage,hungry loner who first decides to unite the scattered, small-time Roman crimelords under one cupola, and to eliminate those who don't fit in.

Freddo (Kim Rossi Stuart) isthe dramatic fulcrum of the film, its Michael Corleone character. Though he canbe as ruthless as his criminal buddies, he's a sensitive soul at heart something that is conveyed both in his innocent lovebird relationship with goodgirl Roberta (Jasmine Trinca) and his Hamlet-style dithering as to whether heshould start a new life abroad. After his watchable turn as the confused fatherof a handicapped son in Gianni Amelio's The Keys Of The House, Rossi Stuart is really coming into his stride: hemay even be ripe for export.

The third boss, Dandi(Claudio Santamaria), is a cocktail of self-doubt and self-regard; but he'salso the least developed of the three. Frustrated police chief Scialoja(Stefano Accorsi) and hooker-with-a-heart-of-stone Patrizia (an overwroughtAnna Mouglalis) complete the main cast.

The film sets off at acracking pace, dragging us from a when-they-were-young prologue through tocontrol of the Eternal City's drug market in the first twenty minutes; nowonder that it flags when the existential crises kick in.

Period pop music, bothItalian and international, is used to underline the casual, often carelessnature of the band's violent career sometimes in ironic counterpoint, as whena police raid on Freddo's apartment is set to the smoothly orchestrated PleaseDon't Go by KC & The SunshineBand.

Luca Bigazzi's widescreenphotography comes into its own when it suggests the emptiness of the 1970s'bling lifestyle that these gun-toting lads buy with their stash (as in scenesof the Lebanese roaming around his vulgar seaside villa, all alone).

Few concessions are made tosubtlety. Freddo et al may be working-class kids, but they have a feel forpostcard settings: one rival is wiped out on the Spanish Steps, and Patriziamanages to crash her car right in front of Castel Sant'Angelo. They also manageto have a hand in most of the big terrorist coups of these years in Italy, fromthe Moro kidnapping to the Bologna station bombing (which is rendered withjarringly unnatural digital effects).

The real-life Banda dellaMagliana was similarly implicated in these and other atrocities; evidence thatthis happened with the collusion of rogue elements of the Italian intelligenceservices is presented here in a murky subplot featuring a sibylline ToniBertorelli as a secret service puppet-master.

Perhaps the most interestingthing about Crime Novel is itsconfident demonstration that commercially successful European feature films canhave a compressed TV miniseries structure and get away with it just as longas the miniseries is gripping enough.

Production companies
Warner Bros Pictures Italia
Crime Novel Films

International sales
TF1 International

Italian distribution
Warner Bros Italia

Riccardo Tozzi
Giovanni Stabilini
Marco Chimenz

Stefano Rulli
Sandro Petraglia
Giancarlo De Cataldo
with Michele Placido
based on De Cataldo's novel of the same name

Luca Bigazzi

Production design
Paola Comencini

Esemeralda Calabria

Paolo Buonvino

Main cast
Kim Rossi Stuart
Anna Mouglalis
Pierfrancesco Favino
Claudio Santamaria
Stefano Accorsi
Riccardo Scamarcio
Jasmine Trinca