Review: Angels of Evil


Filmmakers are more herd-like creatures than most people realise. You can get a sense of this every time there is a spate of studio movies about, say, vampires or volcanic eruptions. But it is not only true of those who work in Hollywood. European, British and US independent filmmakers tend to be equally or even more fashion-bound in their world view.

On the continent there seems currently to be a wave of films dealing with the 1970s and in particular with criminals and terrorists of that era. All of them contain a strong element of nostalgia for the violence - whether revolutionary or merely criminal - that seemed glamorous to young people at the time.

Now comes Angels of Evil, about Renato Vallanzasca, the real-life Milanese gangster who became an outlaw celebrity in the '70s and early '80s. Vallanzasca ran a gang called il banda de Commasina that robbed banks, murdered rivals, killed cops and eventually turned to kidnapping for its income. He spent much of the '70s on the run after the first of two famous prison escapes.

Director Michele Placido, who also co-wrote the screenplay, seems to regard Vallanzasca as a relatively benign figure. You first see him being beaten up by guards in his cell in 1985, and the film conveys a sense of the Italian state of that era as both brutal and incompetent. Placido also makes the city of Milan seem almost East European in its drabness. As a depiction of a place and time it may well be accurate. As storytelling, it is a mess, though its six (!) credited screenwriters pile it high with themes familiar from The Godfather and other superior gangster movies. One of the things that cripples so much continental filmmaking today is a lack of respect for the art of screenwriting and a foolish sense that a director can cobble together one cool scene after another and that it will all work as a narrative.

As a result the film is heavily reliant on a voice-over narration but fails to give you a sense of Vallanzasca's motivations. There is scene after loud scene of mustachioed men shouting at each other and occasionally stabbing or shooting each other. But you never develop a sense of who is whom in his gang or why you should care if one of them is killed or jailed.

Vallanzasca as played by Kim Rossi Stuart remains an opaque and not especially attractive figure. He is not as psychopathically violent as some of his colleagues but his heists are not spectacularly daring or brilliantly planned; he has no great charisma or human wisdom. As he says himself he did not grow up in a poor family, so he is not even a victim or a rebel, just someone "born to steal".

Placido does include a childhood flashback of him releasing a tiger from a zoo, as if to imply Vallanzasca was a fierce free spirit, but there is no tragic grandeur to his trajectory.

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