Alternative Titles: Caliber 9; Calibre 9
Director: Fernando Di Leo
Writer: Fernando Di Leo (Based on stories by Giorgio Scerbanenco)
Starring: Gastone Moschin, Barbara Bouchet, Mario Adorf, Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli, Philippe Leroy, Lionel Sander
Released after a three-year term in prison for a bungled robbery, Ugo Piazza plans to lead the straight life for a while. But no sooner is he back on the street than he’s picked up by a bunch of hoodlums under the employ of gang boss ‘the Americans’ – among them, the psychopathic Rocco – who are convinced that Ugo has stolen $300,000 from them. The gang forces Ugo to work for them in the hope that he will eventually lead them to their missing money.
Novelist Giorgio Scerbanenco is best known in Italy for his series of crime tales, including Milano Calibro 9, set in Milan, which when combined make up what is often referred to as the ‘black Milan’ universe.
It is this universe that lays the foundation for the film and its writer/director Fernando Di Leo accurately extends this bleak universe from the printed page to the visual screen with great aplomb.
Immediately MILANO CALIBRO 9 displays both self-assurance and intrigue as we witness an elaborate parcel exchange that begins outside of the city’s iconic Duomo and for the next five minutes plays out until a harrowing countryside explosion. This opening sequence is arguably not just one of the best of the genre but one of the best committed to film!
Every element here blends perfectly, from the tension generating score courtesy of Luis Bacalv to the editing and the pacing of the frequent parcel exchange and the aftermath.
Almost everything you need to know about this sub-genre can be gleamed in the opening five minutes.
Credits over and we meet Ugo (Gastone Moschin), freshly released from jail for good behaviour after a robbery went awry, who is simply looking to start again. But crime boss The American won’t let him and sends his men to ask him to come visit him…or pay back the $300,000 he believes that he stole from him right before his robbery attempt and getting sent down.
It is here that we meet Rocco, the second in command for The American. This brash, greasy stereotypical Italian gangster stands in complete contrast to the silent, cold and patient Ugo and built on these two differences the two men wage a silent battle for supremacy.
One initial consequence of their difference sees poor Ugo forced to go to the Police Station in order to gain a temporary ID and it is here that we are introduced to the Comissario (Frank Wolff) and his new college Mercuri (Luigi Pistilli ) who provide an alternative angle to the films proceedings while breaking up the focus on Ugo’s life.
Fernando Di Leo however went on record stating that he would retrospectively have preferred to cut these two in order to bolster the action pacing of the film. Now while what he says is true, these two characters are ineffective in terms of policing and quite honestly superfluous to the whole film but despite this, their relative distance to proceedings, indeed they have very little really to do with the exception of perhaps one moment of tension, their constant theoretical debating of socialism and repression highlight the schisms between the old and the new. This is something which is mirrored in the criminal gangs themselves however here in the respect to the law, both debated approaches prove powerless to stem the tide of crime. Limited as they are in their narrow view and tied to specific ideological approaches which exclude the benefits of other thought. But MILANO CALIBRO 9 is not about social commentary and these debates are mere decoration at worst or a starting point for an external discussion at best.
So clearly not quite like Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST or Petri’s INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION but through these conversations Di Leo does at least try to help frame the action within the context of the societal opinion of the time, not to forget also mentioning the perennial Italian north/south divide.
Back to the film and almost everyone believes that Ugo pocketed the money, from The American and his gang, to Ugo’s long suffering girlfriend Nelly (Barbara Bouchet) and the police themselves. The result of such widespread belief is that Di Leo finds the story in the life and action of our anti-hero who, perhaps predictably, is forced back into his life of crime in order to stay alive.
Now I say almost everyone because we are also introduced to the blind Don Vincenzo and his hitman Chino (Philippe Leroy). These two don’t care if Ugo did or didn’t steal the money as Ugo was one of them and it did not break any of the old guards rules. Despite his loyalty to the two the time inevitably comes when he has to choose between his new and his old employer.
The overall effect of all of this is that MILANO CALIBRO 9 feels like a personal story, no doubt in line with the stories held within Giorgio Scerbanenco’s novel, and because of this it distinguishes itself from the majority of its contemporaries while managing to create an emotional impact on the viewer.
This impact is further enhanced through the choice of audible cues, strong performances and fleshed out characters that allow for personal and relationship development that appear believable.
Of course no crime film could get by without some level of betrayal and MILANO CALIBRO 9 has it in spades and yet it does not seem overused. This is because of how it is dealt with, some are secrets only unveiled to Ugo and us, the viewer, at the same time and others show us the information ahead of time making us complicit in the deceit and even if we wanted to warn Ugo we are powerless to stop the inevitable so we can only scream at the screen and pray he can find his way out of it.
By the end of Milano Calibro 9 not only do you feel sympathy for our anti-hero Ugo but you certainly warm…or at least begrudgingly respect Rocco. A testament to the terrific character development this film allows.
Everything I have said makes this a great film but it would be remiss of me not to mention the shot choice and cinematography (see the way in which the faces are lit while travelling in a car at 1hour 9minutes) courtesy of Franco Villa. Utilising a wide variety of outdoor shots that show us the black Milan, from the foggy streets to the grey industrial areas and the bars this Milan has succumb to the trappings of gang crime.
So if you are still undecided about whether you need to watch this film I will leave you with this statement. MILANO CALIBRO 9 is a gripping crime film that packs an emotional punch as much as a physical one.
Di Leo has brought to life real characters in a gritty, brutal and engaging story and that start…worth the price of admission alone.