Not being an established name, you may not have heard of Stefano Sollima before. He certainly isn’t a prolific film-maker even in his home country of Italy, but he does seem to have found himself a very interesting niche within which he very competently goes about exploring with his work. Hopefully he’ll no longer be flying under the radar with his forthcoming film Sicario 2: Soldado.
The son of Italian writer and director Sergio Sollima, he began his career as a camera operator working on reports from war zones for some of the big news networks. From here he has worked his way up the food chain of on-screen production from short films to TV episodes and then TV series, and finally on to feature films. In his work he has developed his style and craft and found an interesting balance utilising action (or violence) and politics to great effect. The main body of his work so far has revolved around the workings and machinations of organised crime and it has been a good avenue of success for him, marrying the structure and goings-on of the mob organisation to the action and depravity of their “work”.
The short films that I have seen, Sotto le unghie (Under the Nails, 1993) and Zippo (2003), are quite weird and provide no real indication of where Sollima was going to be headed at the time. Both of these dialogue-less films are available on YouTube for your viewing pleasure!
The latest of his short work is The Legend of Red Hand (2018), which for all the gloss and production value is actually a really a long advert for Campari. It does, however, star the intoxicating Zoe Saldana and a fairly intriguing premise making it wholly watchable but doesn’t really show off the depth of Sollima’s ability.
With the move into TV it wasn’t long before he found his voice. Taking the reigns of Ho sposato un calciatore (2005) he went about bringing the lives of women married to professional football players to life, (the same idea as the ITV series Footballers’ Wives). It only ran for four episodes (and has got a truly awful rating on IMDB) so maybe it is best that we try to avoid and forget about this!
The next couple of TV series that he had a hand in directing overlap a little in genre and probably gave an interesting opening into an area in which he would eventually make his name and come to the attention of a wider audience: La squadra (The Squad) is a long running police drama that Sollima directed seven episodes between 2003 and 2007; and Crimini (Crimes), in case you haven’t guessed, is a crime thriller series which he directed just three episodes.
So far so good but nothing continuous to develop and build off of. That was all to change with the series that caught the attention of a much wider audience: Romanzo Criminale – La Serie. This series is an adaptation of the 2005 film of the same name and is also originally from the novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo. The story details a criminal organisation between the 1970’s to the 1990’s in Rome and features internal feuds, the Comorra, the Sicilian Mafia, the police and the Italian secret services. Taking a look through the ratings and reviews of this series shows that it is definitely one to watch!
Sollima’s work on Romanzo Criminale undoubtably caught the attention of the producers of that show, Sky, as they got him on board for his next project on TV in Gomorrah. Sollima took charge of 10 episodes (between 2014 and 2016) across first two seasons, the majority of which are in the first season. It is loosely based from the book by Roberto Saviano, which has also spawned a play and a film.
Once again Gomorrah is treading familiar ground for Sollima, following mafia-style plotting and action but still managing to being strongly character driven. It has been hugely well received, regularly featuring as one of Sky’s most watched shows (no small feat for a foreign language series). I am working my way through this series at the moment and it is thoroughly engaging.
“My early idea was to make a TV show and then I used The Wire as a reference. And also Miami Vice, but not the TV show; the movie by Michael Mann because I love the atmosphere [in it]. So I said, ‘Let’s make a cool TV show but shoot it in a real place.’ And this was part of the first idea of the show. I just did what I love to watch on TV.”
Moving onto looking at Sollima’s films and he again chooses a similar path as with his TV work. His first feature length film is 2012s A.C.A.B. (All Cops Are Bastards) which is based on the book of the same name by Carlo Bonini (who also assisted in the writing of Suburra) and follows the exploits and trials of a core group of riot police but also integrates the issues around immigration and fascism/populism creeping into everyday Italian life. Unashamed of its violence it never feels overly for show but it is brutally done. As with Gomorrah and Romanzo Criminale Sollima keeps the focus on the characters and this pays off. In what starts out seemingly all about the violence needed to get by really ends up being an interesting mix of action and politics and showcasing the effects on society of immigration.
Moving from A.C.A.B. to the utterly superb Suburra (2015), Sollima continues to develop and enhance his storytelling. This Netflix produced film envisions rival factions of the mob falling over each other to gain control of a new complex that would make everyone’s fortunes. Incorporating politics, violence, religion, more violence, intimidation and the tangled web that all these weave this film has got it all and was one of my favourite films from that year. The atmosphere throughout is fantastic and the social commentary is evident again as the tensions between nationalities, classes and factions clash.
Which leads us nicely up to Sicario 2: Soldado (I’m not calling it Day of the Soldado, that’s just rubbish). In what is, looking at Sollima’s past, undoubtably going to be more action oriented than Villeneuve’s superb original, the tone will more than likely shift slightly. But if you take a look at Taylor Sheridan’s excellent scriptwriting of recent years and add into that Sollima’s attention to characterisation it may well surprise a few people. Alongside the no-punches-pulled action that Sollima can produce, expect a good deal of machination and intrigue to be intertwined with the violence. On top of this a prominent part of Sollima’s work has been his commentary on the social aspects of the situation and Soldado is landing pretty hard onto a political time and landscape, particularly in the US at present, that may well strike a chord with many viewers.
Combining with Taylor Sheridan’s script will allow a good amount of tone to be carried over and, as with Johann Johannsson original, astounding base-heavy score expect frequent collaborator Hildur Guðnadóttir to revel in that area too. As much as I loved Sicario and Villeneuve’s approach I can’t help but get the feeling that Soldado is going to be equally impressive but in its own way.
“It’s absolutely a standalone movie – a completely different story with just two of the characters that you met in Sicario,” he states. “It’s not a real sequel. The antagonists are now absolutely the main characters.”
“I loved Sicario. I feel the movie was quite similar to my approach so, to me, I’m just shooting another movie. Soldado will be much more cinematic than Sicario was; it’s got an incredible amount of huge action sequences in there. It will be a different journey in the same world. Even the theme is different – it’s not drug dealing, it’s more on immigration.