22/09/2011 10:40 BST | Updated 14/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Romanzo Criminale - Italian crime wave hits Sky Arts

Nudity, violence, bad language - the Italian crime series Romanzo Criminale has them all. Director Stefano Sollima talks from Italy about his hugely successful fact-based drama that recounts the bloody rise of an Italian gang who defied the cops and the Mafia during the 1970s

Italian TV is notorious for its endless chat shows, scantily dressed women and stripping gameshow contestants. However, the trashy reputation is about to take a knock with the arrival of Romanzo Criminale on Sky Arts.

This is a sweeping, bone-crushing drama, inspired by real events during the chaotic, violent 1970s in Rome. Forget the twee staples of UK crime shows such as Lewis and Midsomer Murders. Romanzo Criminale is a crime drama con brio.

It's based on the story of the Banda della Magliana, a vicious gang that set out to rule the criminal underworld of 1970s Rome. While Naples and Sicily were the fiefdoms of the Camorra and the Mafia, Rome's criminal network was a patchwork of small gangs, and the Banda set out to be top Rottweiler in the capital.

Director Stefano Sollima aimed to push Italian TV's usual limits of violence and bad language in filming the story for Sky Italia, which is based on a novel by Roman judge Giancarlo De Cataldo and had already been made into a successful film.

Murder, bombings, kidnapping and plots

"I tried to do the same story but more aggressively and real, and this was new to our market," says Sollima by phone from Italy. "I wanted to have something that was glamorous sometimes, but normally really tough and realistic."

While De Cataldo's novel is inspired by the real Banda della Magliana, names and details have been changed. One of the factors that makes the TV series so compelling is that this classic story of the gang's rise is little known outside of Italy.

During the 1970s the country was a frightening place at times, one of police brutality, political murders, bombings, kidnappings and secret service plots against the government. The story of how the gang became involved in these disturbing affairs, filmed on the Roman streets with a soundtrack of classic 70s pop, prompted the leading daily newspaper La Stampa to call the show "the best series ever produced in Italy".

The Lebanese, Ice, Dandi and Patrizia

Stefano Sollima says its success is down to the freedom he was given. "I had an incredible chance to be free during the filming," he says. "They left me free to experiment. They let me play with music, giving me money to buy the rights to tracks. They let me choose all the cast, and they were all unknown."

The story focuses on the Lebanese, who we first meet during a bungled lorry robbery. Running his gang from a clapped-out caravan and frustrated by his high-risk, low-reward criminality, he dreams of becoming a big player like Terrible, the city's major crime warlord.

Kidnapping offers a way to huge rewards. The Lebanese, played with dead-eyed sullenness by Francesco Montanari, and Dandi (Alessandro Roja) link their gang with that of Ice (Vinicio Marchioni), and they abduct Baron Rosellini. The plot ends tragically, but the gangs get their money.

Despite tensions between the rival outfits, the Lebanese convinces the crooks not to blow the money on hookers and Porsches, but to reinvest in further criminal enterprises - namely drugs. A young police inspector, Nicola Scialoja (Marco Bocci), goes after the Banda, becoming obsessed by the beautiful call girl who is the girlfriend of Dandi, Patrizia (Daniela Virgilio).

Iggy Pop and Chic

Meanwhile, the Banda corners the market in drugs, making many enemies, but also being enlisted by the secret service, which hopes to destabilise the government and ignite a right-wing coup.

While the series has its odd corny moment, such as the gangsters playing a symbolic game of innocent beach football before embarking on their murderous drugs enterprise, the series is gripping and told with verve. Stefano Sollima used to be a news cameraman, so there is a lot of shooting with handheld cameras, along with overlapping scenes played out to pop classics by the likes of Iggy Pop and disco group Chic, a style that relies heavily on landmark mob movies such as GoodFellas.

And the 70s detail is painstakingly done, from the old Fiat cars to the moustaches. Sollima says, "Today, if you show this series to young people, they can't believe it was true. For that reason, I put a lot of attention into the detail for costumes and the look of it. It was important to make it realistic."

TV's Euro crime spree

During a year in which subtitled crime series such as The Killing, Spiral and Wallander have won audiences, Romanzo Criminale looks like being the next big Euro hit outside its home country.

"It's the first time you can see what happened in Rome, normally a quiet city," says Sollima. "The Banda della Magliana was historically exceptional. A group of people got the power in Rome and then they deal with part of the State and the Camorra. It never happened before, and now no one rules the city like they did."

• Romanzo Criminale: Sky Arts, starts Tuesday, 4 October, at 9pm