“When I watch a movie,” says Stefano Sollima, “if I see a gruesome detail, if it makes sense to be brutal, if it’s honest and done in good faith—it makes everything more real.”
And few mainstream action filmmakers working are quite as willing to get as brutal as Sollima. Blunt, visceral, unexpected violence—with guns, bombs, and, in one memorable instance, a giant Italian pig—has become a trademark of his filmmaking over the last decade. The Italian director has carved out a career investigating and depicting the dangerous underbellies of major crime families and organizations, examining both the corruption of politics and the seedy international shipments of narcotics.
As a result, his projects—including the 2014 Italian television series Gomorrah, and ZeroZeroZero, an eight-part Amazon miniseries that debuted in 2020—toggle between the cynical, moral failings of high authority and the trickle-down decline of communities tragically impacted by their appetite for drugs. He’s a director keenly aware of the corrosive strings being pulled from above, but never shy about showing the effects—like sledgehammers shattering chest plates—down below. Within these amoral backdrops, Sollima’s detailed, immersive storytelling and exhilarating, blunt-force trauma has turned him into one of the most skilled and thrilling action directors working today.
Stefano Sollima working with Michael B. Jordan on set for Without Remorse, 2021.
Everett Collection / Courtesy of Nadja Klier for Amazon Studios
Without Remorse, his second American movie, available Friday on Amazon Prime, fits neatly onto his high-octane continuum. Based on Tom Clancy’s 1993 novel, and co-written by Taylor Sheridan, it stars Michael B. Jordan as Navy SEAL John Kelly, who uncovers an international conspiracy after Russian nationalists murder his wife and former colleagues. “I liked the idea of doing a movie that was entertaining, a lot of action, but at the same time, it felt relevant in our [internal] war today,” Sollima says. “John Kelly lives more in the shades of gray, so in the beginning of his evolution he’s a soldier, he’s a believer, but then when he loses everything, he starts to question everything.” In today’s cinematic landscape, it further cements Sollima’s standout status as an action artist capable of crafting rich, provocative thrillers that run on brutal, even comical violence.
From Soaps to Slaughter
Sollima was raised in the world of movies, the child of Sergio Sollima, a prestigious director of numerous Italian spaghetti westerns. The goal was always making his own films, though he took a few detours along the way. His first brush with high-intensity combat came not in film school, but as a young network news videographer covering war zones in Israel and Kosovo in the 1990s. Throughout the early and mid-2000s, Sollima made his bones working on Italian soap operas, “a way to make money,” he says, which gave him valuable experience as he pursued his own projects, like the 2008 series Romanza Criminale, a 1970s-set true crime drama about a family of vicious mobsters that take over Rome’s underworld. In 2012, he made his directorial debut with A.C.A.B.— All Cops Are Bastards and followed it up with 2015’s Suburra, morally complex stories featuring a mosaic of competing perspectives, from police officers and mafia members to church officials. Both earned positive reviews, and the recent interest around gritty crime thrillers was enough for Netflix to produce a television series prequel to Suburra in 2017.
“I like to portray the world as it is, and in the real world you have a lot of contradiction. Not everything makes sense,” Sollima says. “You don’t have good or bad people in real life, because you can be a bad guy for someone and a superhero for someone else. I think that complexity in our work has to be reflected.” As anti-heroes became the protagonist-du-jour of prestige American television, Sollima was experimenting in the same creative mold overseas. His fascination with hypermasculinity often exposed the vicious bowels of major cities, making the existential crises taking place in Albuquerque and on Madison Avenue seem sunny by comparison. “Even if it’s violent, it’s counter-balanced by the psychology of it,” Sollima says of his work. “At the end, everybody is doing his own business, and doesn’t care a lot about other people’s lives or emotions.”
Gomorrah: Gnarly Crime with a PhD in Anthropology
As heightened as it can get, Sollima’s work always has a whiff of anthropology to it. When he signed on to direct the first 10 episodes of Gomorrah, the 2014 drama (based on the book by Roberto Saviano) about the inner workings of a Naples crime family, Sollima spent time interviewing its residents and exploring the streets and neighborhoods that his protagonists would inhabit, better grasping a world just two hours from his home. “I was really curious to go there and experience what’s real life there, how they live to be criminals,” he says. “It’s a process to try to understand their psychology of how they move, what they think, how they organize their societies.”