Film preview: Angels of Evil

Michele Placido's latest gangster movie belongs to a radical genre that is not afraid to tackle the dark side of modern Italian life

• Valeria Solarino and Kim Rossi Stuart star in Angels of Evil, which explores the dark side of Italian life, as did Il Divo and Gomorrah

IT WOULD be easy to dismiss the new Italian crime film Angels of Evil as yet another in a long line of Scorsese clones. Tearing wildly through several decades in the life and violent times of media-courting Milanese crime kingpin Renato Vallanzasca (currently serving four life sentences), the movie owes a debt to Goodfellas. With its coolly charismatic and amoral outlaw protagonists, irony-drenched voice-over narration, thrillingly excessive gut-punching violence, or simply its heady camera work and the fetishistic attention to period detail, Angels of Evil frequently feels as if director Michele Placido has checked off a list of modern gangster tropes against the details of the real story.

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Lead actor Kim Rossi Stuart – whose magnetic performance as Vallanzasca makes the film a more compelling prospect – may wax lyrical about it being "a sort of X-ray of the soul and the mind of a villain," but really, who is he trying to kid? To anyone with even a passing knowledge of modern American crime movies, it will seem like little more than another Euro-riff on Hollywood, its locations, actors and specific story points the only things really distinguishing it from a Mesrine (2009) or a Gangster No. 1 (2000).

Except there's a bit more to it than that. Angels of Evil is actually part of a long, somewhat inglorious but by no means artistically or culturally invalid tradition of trashy Italian crime cinema that began in the late 1960s and flourished in the 1970s. Collectively know as "poliziotteschi" (police-related) or "la mala" (Italian for "underworld"), explosively titled films such Violent City (1970), Caliber 9 (1972), Rome Armed to the Teeth (1974) and Shoot First, Die Later (1975) boasted action as crazily unhinged as their protagonists' moustaches were finely groomed.

What's more, B-movie auteurs such as Umberto Lenzi, Enzo G Castillari and, especially, Fernando Di Leo thrived making films that picked up the commercial gauntlet thrown down by American cop and mob movies such as The French Connection (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), The Godfather (1972) and Serpico (1973) by upping the ante and putting their own spin on inner-city tales of violence and organised crime. You might think the car chase in The French Connection is the greatest in cinema, but it doesn't feature the main character head-butting the windscreen of a fast-moving van from which he's also hanging off the front. The break-neck chase in Di Leo's 1972 The Italian Connection does.

Yet there's more to these films than simple genre thrills. Thanks to the general decline of the western in the late 1960s – which Italian cinema had helped stave off for a few extra years thanks to the international success of Sergio Leone's Dollar trilogy – there was a gap in the market that local filmmakers, able to work cheaply and efficiently, could exploit. The films they made tackled aspects of Italian life from which its world-conquering maestros – Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Antonioni and Fellini – had largely shied.

Of course, the latter group of directors had helped rehabilitate the Italian national image in the wake of Mussolini. But they were also benefiting hugely from Italy's post-war economic boom. As the economic miracle gave way to crisis, fomenting more than a decade of political turmoil, rampant corruption, violent mafia crime and police brutality, as well as terrorist atrocities perpetrated by both left-wing militant groups such as the Red Brigade and neo-fascist extremists, it was the new breed of no-nonsense directors making cheap genre films that best-reflected what became known – thanks to the sheer volume of the gunfire sprayed on the streets – as the "years of lead". Films such as Carlo Lizanni's Bandits in Milan (1968), Enzo G Castillari's High Crime (1973) and Lenzi's aforementioned Rome Armed to the Teeth used on-the-fly locations in troubled cities such as Milan, Rome and Genoa to add authenticity to their-ripped-from-the-headlines stories, and often drew inspiration from real life events or public figures, such as doomed police commissioner Luigi Calabressi, whose brutal, hard-line approach to rising crime stats was brought to an end with his assassination in 1972 (he was the model for Franco Nero's character in High Crime).

But it was the late Fernando Di Leo who really opened up the Italian crime cinema, infusing it with a deceptively realistic and authentic edge. The son and grandson of lawyers, he grew up exposed to criminals and learned how they operated, which, when combined with his love of classic Warner Bros gangster pictures, made him ideally placed to add psychological depth, political subtexts and noir elements to what were initially dismissed as Hollywood rip-offs.

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Having cut his teeth as one of Italy's most prolific screenwriters – co-penning The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) – Di Leo's "Milieu Trilogy", comprising Caliber 9, The Italian Connection and The Boss (1973) didn't treat organised crime in the same reverential way as American films such as The Godfather. He understood that in Italy crime was rife with petty rivalries and disloyalty. His protagonists were often low-level footsoldiers harassed by cops and criminals alike, or up-and-comers intent on upsetting the old guard and discovering the political establishment was just as corrupt.

In The Italian Connection – about an Afro-American and Italian-American hitman team sent to Milan to take out a mobster framed for a missing shipment of heroin – he took the bold step of presenting his characters as garrulous, social animals prone to enjoying a spot of R&R in between bouts of bloodshed. Not for nothing has Quentin Tarantino cited Di Leo's work as a major influence.

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Italian crime cinema declined towards the end of the 1970s, killed off mainly by television and cheap American imports that offered better value for money than funding movies (thanks Berlusconi). But as Italian cinema has started to re-emerge as an artistically daring force in the past six or seven years, it's notable that much of its focus has been on the kind of material that Di Leo explored.

Angels of Evil, much like director Placido's earlier 2005 collaboration with Kim Rossi Stuart, Romanzo Criminale, revisits the era directly, while Paolo Sorrentino's technically dazzling The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008) respectively explore the mid-level bureaucracy of the mafia and the links between politics and crime.

Then there's Gomorrah (2008), Matteo Garrone's chilling account of the poisonous influence the Neopolitan mafia, the Camorra, exerts. These films may all be more artfully made than their Poliziotteschi forebears, yet they're helping to tell an important part of Italy's story that their scrappier predecessors were daring enough to begin. "Every nation should look at itself and have the ability to analyse its own problems and its own society," says Stuart when asked about the resilience of crime cinema in his home country. "This what has emerged from Italy."

• Angels of Evil is on selected release from 27 May.