Ultras – ****

Ultras (Francesco Lettieri, 2020) – Full Original/Co-Production – Realist Drama

Sandro aka Mohicano (Aniello Arena) is pushing 50 as well as single and childless. He is also the leader of a group of “ultras”, fanatical fans of the Naples football club/soccer team. He and other senior members of the group have long since been banned from actually attending matches, but the group’s younger members do, and routinely engage in various acts of hooliganism. The younger ultras are growing frustrated by the leadership of the older ones but Sandro finds himself distracted by the power struggle within the group by a budding romance with Terry (Antonia Truppo) on one hand and a fatherly concern for aspiring ultra Angelo (Ciro Nacca), a teenager whose brother was a member of the group until his murder during a fight with rival fans. As things come to a head between factions of the group and his beloved Naples finds themselves on the cusp of a championship, Sandro must decide where he belongs.

Football hooliganism is a social problem that I, like many I am sure, have personally found very perplexing. I am a rabid sports fan myself and during my travels I have become a fan of various football/soccer teams, but cannot for the life of me understand why you would want to fight other fans or, as the characters in the film and many of their real-life counterparts do, dedicate your entire life exclusively to following a team and fighting week in and week out.

All of this notwithstanding, I have always been intrigued by how film-makers could possibly make sense of this subculture. The most popular films on the subject – such as early 2000s films Green Street and The Football Factory – has largely glamorized hooligans, making them seem like romantic larger-than-life gangster figures. The only socially responsible depiction of hooligans that I knew of up to now was Alan Clarke’s masterpiece The Firm, which features a great performance from Gary Oldman as a toxic psycho for whom football is only an excuse to vent his rage at life in Thatcher’s Britain.

In such a context, Ultras is a genuinely innovative film, one that goes further than even The Firm in terms of deglamorizing hooliganism and the culture of European ultras. This may make it less fun than some viewers would like, but it also makes it an important film about masculinity and its attendant toxic cultures of violence. Sandro and his best friends in the senior wing of the group are pathetic figures still clinging to their youths and acting like teenagers in their fifties. “You’re going to keep going with this, with your belly” he taunts his friend Barabba (Salvatore Pellicia), who besides sporting an enormous gut also still depends on his elderly mother to clean his wounds for him after fights. Unlike his peers, Sandro is at least aware of the absurdity of his situation and is increasingly desperate to leave it all behind, hence his conflict.

Aniello Arena puts in a great performance as Sandro, managing to convey much of his conflict and weariness indirectly for the most part. Arena is not alone, the cast on the whole is terrific in spite of very little collective experience in cinema, especially the younger actors. Writer/director Francisco Lettieri also does well here in providing a great deal of the gritty realism that underpins the film’s themes. This execution is laudable, but it is not exactly novel given the recent wave of gritty representations of contemporary urban Italy. Naples, where the film is set, is depicted in very similar ways in a number of contemporary films and series, most notably the Gomorrah franchise.

While Neapolitan representation is thus a bit clichéd here, on the whole the film is very effective as an aging gangster looking to go straight sort of story. There are some underdeveloped characters in the mix, but by and large the craftsmanship is good. The film should be interesting to anyone regardless of sporting interests, but invariably some won’t be interested in a football/soccer related story. More challenging, I would argue, is the film’s tone, which is downbeat and revisionist, purposely defying those audiences that would be looking for the next version of The Football Factory.

Regardless of how you personally end up feeling about the film, a key dimension of the film’s importance for Netflix lies in the corporate relationships that underpinned its production. The film is the first of seven that Netflix will be co-producing with Italian media giants Mediaset (the company owned by the Berslusconi family). This is a very unusual relationship which will see Netflix provide the majority of the production finance while Mediaset handles development and has the right to screen the works on linear television after their release on Netflix. (The film was also originally slated to be released in theaters in Italy before the Coronavirus thing; it would have been interesting to see if this were to have been managed by Medusa, Mediaset’s film distribution arm).

On paper, I can see what Netflix gets out of this deal, a break on the price of the films as well as creative input from a company that has a deep understanding of the country’s audiences and a wealth of talent relationships to boot. But what about Mediaset? Will these movies actually draw significant ratings for its channels? Time will tell, but Mediaset deserves some credit for their willingness to experiment with new kinds of relationships with SVOD services. In addition to this co-financing deal, the company has also been experimenting with releasing some of its series in Spain on SVOD before or during their run on linear television, a strategy that has paid off with big ratings for works such as Vivir sin permiso and El pueblo; and of course the company gets whatever income it can from licensing the works to the streamers. The company is thus finding ways to use companies like Netflix to boost its linear broadcasts, and we will see if that happens with their films as well.

Other Italian films reviewed on the blog: On My Skin, Happy as Lazzaro, The Ruthless.

Netflix Tendencies

Notable Corporate Alliance

As discussed extensively above, the film represents the latest product of an alliance between Netflix and Italian media conglomerate Mediaset.

Netflix Stars

Production company Indigo Films – run by producers Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima and Carlotta Calori – is best known to international audiences for producing many of Paolo Sorrentino’s films, but they also produced Slam, a very underrated film that was also the very first Italian film that Netflix acquired as an original film outside of Italy.

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