The derby of the Eternal City needs little introduction. From the tale of twins Romulus and Remus, to the feud that drove Oriazi versus Curiazi, and Mario against Silla, Rome’s history has always been marked by fierce rivalries that split the city into two sides. Football is no exception. Looking beyond the classical age, you can find a town divided between the colours of red and blue, as true Romans either support Roma or Lazio, Lupi or Aquile.
The Derby della Capitale consumes the city. Indeed, it is so important that references have frequently been made to the game in Rome’s film and literary culture. Cinema, in particular, is part of local folklore and for film fans or anyone looking for a unique trip outside the Eternal City's historic centre, Cinecittà Studios – located on the outskirts of Rome – is the place to visit. Built in the late 1930s during the fascist era, Benito Mussolini called Cinecittà the place where “dreams become reality.” And that they did. Just to name a few, Cinecittà housed movies like Ben Hur and Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. It was also the set where Audrey Hepburn acted Roman Holiday, or where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fell in love while filming Cleopatra. But, as mentioned earlier, the Capital’s movies remain associated with Italian football too.
Alberto Sordi, one of Italian cinema’s greatest stars – and a passionate Romanista – immortalised his football faith through the movie Il Marito, where he berated Laziali for being Burini – peasants from the suburbs and provinces surrounding Rome.
But not all Italian films have taken such a humorous and light-hearted approach towards football fandom in Rome. In fact, in 1991, filmmaker Ricky Tognazzi – the son of legendary actor Ugo Tognazzi – directed a picture about Roma’s hardcore supporters. Unfortunately, violence became a prominent part of Italian fan culture from the 1970s and some groups of ultras have been involved in some shameful incidents. Not that European football was immune to this phenomenon, with hooliganism dubbed the ‘English disease’ in the 1980s due to the notoriety of some ‘fans’ who followed the English clubs and the national team.
Thus, the story Tognazzi told in Ultrà – the movie’s title – was at a piece with events in the world of European football at the time. Whilst causing quite a stir, the film remains unbeknown to many outside Italy. Here is a little run down for those whose curiosity is piqued.
Principe, played by the then rising star Claudio Amendola, is the leader of the fictional "Venom Brigade", an ultras group that broke their relationship with the rest of Roma’s supporter groups. Venom Brigade is loaded with fictional ultrà, whose names point to their violent character and fascist politics: Nazi, Skull, Nerone (black one).
The film follows Principe, who has just been released from jail a few days before Roma travel to Turin to play their arch-rivals Juventus. Upon his release, however, Principe discovers that his best friend Red (Ricky Memphis) has taken control of the group and is also having an affair with his girlfriend Cinzia.
The rivalry between Principe and his rival Red creates tension within the group and this boils over when the Venom Brigade confront Juve’s Ultras – the Drughi – outside the stadium. The chaos that follows exposes the dark and violent culture to which the group adheres.
Behind the appearance
The subtle messages in this film are best conveyed during the groups’ train journey to Turin. The act of journey is particularly symbolic in Italian literature and film.
The theme can be traced to the writings of the famed Italian poet Dante Alighieri, and in particular his Divine Comedy – the three canticas of which describe his journey through the afterlife (hell, purgatory and heaven). On a deeper level, Dante’s journey represents the soul’s journey towards God.
Thus, in Italian film, scenes that depicted an individual or group’s journey to a certain destination often symbolised more than just a simple trip, but rather a deep and soul-searching road people travel to better understand themselves. In Ultrà, this is evident with the character Red, who throughout the trip from Rome to Turin demonstrates that he has matured since Principe’s spell in prison and has begun to separate himself – both spiritually and psychologically – from the rest of the group.
This detachment is also portrayed through the main soundtrack of the film, written by Antonello Venditti, the well known Roman and Romanista composer who also wrote the club’s famous anthem – ‘Roma Roma Roma’.
If you have an interest in Calcio and you want to learn more about the Ultras, this film contains some interesting moments. The football rivalry between Roma and Juventus is just a lens through which Tognazzi attempted to portray the violence that perpetrated football during those years.
The love story involving Red, Principe and Cinzia is a subplot to the film’s main storyline, which is centred on the relationship between the two protagonists of the Venom Brigade and the way Ultras groups considered their connection with the world of football in the late 1980s. Of course, there are many films out there that deal with the subject of football hooliganism, but most tend to glamorise the lifestyle. Ultrà has grit and tries to reveal some hard-hitting truths.
However, the film was not well received by Roma’s ‘real’ hardcore fan groups. Many complained about the movie and were disappointed when the film came out as they considered themselves falsely represented by Tognazzi’s work. They thought Ultrà led people to misunderstand their values – or what they call the ‘Mentalità Ultras’ – by painting them under a false image of violence and blood.
Indeed, it is important to remember that this film was – and is – by no means representative of Roma’s fan base as a whole nor every Ultras group. In the film, Venom Brigade is marginalised by the Curva Sud for their extremity and they too make an effort to distinguish themselves from the most prominent Ultras group, Roma’s CUCS (Commando Ultrà Curva Sud).
Instead, Ultrà is a story which could have been set on any Curva on the Pensisula. Furthermore, although the word Ultras is not a synonym for brutality, one cannot ignore the fact that violence exists and forms part of the Ultras’ culture. Roma Ultras, for example, have been involved in some particularly unsavory incidents: like the infamous 2004 Derby della Capitale - when Roma Ultras entered the pitch to stop the game on the pretense of false rumours about a boy being killed by police; or the death of Napoli fan Ciro Esposito at the hands of Roma Ultrà Daniele De Santis during the 2015 Coppa Italia final.
That said, Tognazzi’s movie was good enough to earn the Silver Bear award for Best Director at the 1991 Berlin International Film Festival and two European Film Awards in the same year.
If you have seen the film and are a Calcio aficionado, you may have identified a familiar face. Looking rather younger than he does now, the current Sampdoria president and film producer Massimo Ferrero makes a brief cameo in Ultrà (just over 30 minutes in).
Ferrero plays Grigione, a Roma Ultrà that can’t make the trip to Turin due to his wife’s complaints, but he turns up to the station to see off his companions nonetheless. In something of a comical scene, Ferrero runs alongside the train as it begins to pull away, imploring his baby son – who he is carrying in his arms – to say ‘Forza Roma’. Ferrero, a Romanista himself, was Ultrà’s executive producer.