Born in 1955 in the Northern Italian footballing hotbed of Milan, Ricardo Tognazzi is the Italian director responsible for the evocative 1991 Italian movie Ultra. Up as it was The Silence of the Lambs, such was the success of Ultra that Tognazzi won the Silver Bear award for the Best Director at the 1991 Berlin International Film Festival.
In these more modern times of never ending ‘hoolie porn’ in both film and paperback, Ultra was something of a groundbreaker in terms of the cultural genre it had at its heart.
Before it had come a number of made for television film dramas predominantly set in the football firm lad culture of the UK. It was Alan Clarke’s The Firm of 1989 that thrust Gary Oldman cast as ‘Bexy’ on a path to Hollywood stardom and worldwide attention. The genre then shifted slightly with ID released in 1995 with the ‘undercover’ infiltrator theme; a theme that was explored again in Green Street with Elijah Wood the academic ‘dropout’ turned West Ham hooligan.
Tognazzi’s Ultra tells the story of a forceful and violent character called Principe (Prince) played by Claudio Amendola. Newly released from jail he leads an organised group of AS Roma supporters known as the ‘Brigatte Veneno’ (Poison Brigade). The group of characters travel north from Rome to Turin on a slow dusty train to see the Giallorossi of AS Roma battle it out with the all dominant and powerful Juventus.
But the real purpose of the trip is not the Serie A football fixture rather a chance to explore themes of crushed aspiration, race and themes of social exclusion amongst the characters. These were key issues in Italian society that ultimately led to the many years of Berlusconi rule.
More importantly, the ultimate aim of Prince is a violent confrontation with The Drughi group from Juventus.
Like the West Ham against Millwall rivalry explored in so many British films, AS Roma against Juventus was and remains the classic traditional football dual. But unlike the inner city London rivalry between Millwall and West Ham, Juve and Roma is the classic story of plots and arguments. Through the years this is a rivalry that has resulted in fierce mutual attacks by club Presidents, allegations of corruption and dramatic accusations of referee bias.
The beginning of the rivalry has its roots in the 1980s as the two jostled for domination of the Italian game. AS Roma after a period of mediocrity under Gaetano Anzalone, fell into the hands of the aspirational Dino Viola a President eager to challenge the dominant Juventus of Giampiero Boniperti. Success came in 1983 when Roma won Serie A only for the highs of victory to be destroyed by defeat by Liverpool in its own Olympic Stadium. Accusations of corruption against Viola in both Italian and European football theatres emerged.
Domestically the Giallorossi and Bianconeri would dominate Serie A during the early 1980’s yet even though the protagonists changed over time clashes between the clubs hierarchies continued for many years. Fabio Capello’s departure for Juventus after 5 years at AS Roma in 2004 brought fresh words of anger in Rome.
What followed was a FIFA World Cup win in 2006 but more accusation culminated in the now infamous messy Calciopoli scandal that involved city rivals Lazio and the Juventus of Moggi and Bettega.
More recent additions to the football hooligan film genre have explored the more recognisable themes of fashion, labels and music. But the rivalry explored in Tognazzi’s Ultra cuts across both the aforementioned footballing rivalry and like Clarke’s The Firm, a grim yet tragic dominant character in Principe.
Just as Elijah Wood portrayal of West Ham followers did not go down well with many in the East End of London, so Claudio Amendola was in receipt of many threats from the Ultras of AS Roma at the film’s release. The contentious issue was not his acting more the anxious rivalry with fellow fan Red played by Ricky Memphis and the death of ‘Smilzo’ stabbed by Principe during the long awaited confrontation with Juventus fans.
‘He was a friend of mine’ says Red in the toilets of the Communale as Smilzo lies dead covered in blood.
Ultra marks out a journey that tells us as much about the rivalry between these two great football sides as it does about the pre-Berlusconi Italian social landscape. With its shabby football special trains, anxious love trysts and grim urban scrubland locations, Ultra was a filmmaking idea rightfully recognised at the 41st Berlin International Film Festival.
Today AS Roma and Juventus still find themselves as the two dominant sides of Italian football some 30 years on from the classic rivalry of the early 80’s. Whilst Del Piero has gone, so the great Roman Francesco Totti remains for the Giallorossi yet Juventus seemingly sit dominant and untouchable at the top. Like Red and Principle’ who share an affection for the same woman in the film, so Juventus and AS Roma share an infatuated and long-running fixation on being crowned Scudetto winners – Champions of Italy.
Like ‘friends sharing a woman’ so the footballing rivalry between the two goes on, stronger than ever.