Netflix movie Ultras opens with a disclaimer stating it’s wholly a work of fiction, that the logos and names are not based on reality, that no Neapolitan “ultras” — the Italian term for soccer hooligans — were involved in its making. Perhaps this is so the filmmakers won’t get clobbered with a brick or two-by-four on the street after a match; perhaps it’s to prepare us for the movie’s gritty realism. So is this new depiction of an organized firm of very, very violent dudes a gripping drama, or just a kick in the head?
ULTRAS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Sandro (Aniello Arena) is banned from the soccer arena. Every game, he has to report to the police station and sign a sheet, proving he’s not on the grounds with bludgeon in hand, ready to crack some skulls. He tools around on a motorcycle and wears a sleeveless denim jacket bearing a patch of a blue-colored version of the Confederate flag — it looks like a “cut,” or the signature leather vest worn by motorcycle gangs, proving that, yes, I’ve seen Sons of Anarchy. He leads the Apaches, followers of the Napoli football club who gather together not to bond over their love of the game or obsess about their fantasy teams like sports fans most of us may know — you know, sports fans who are nerds but won’t admit that they’re nerds.
No, these guys are nerds for violence, in it just for the extracurricular bloodsport, collectively concentrating their masculine rage and gobs of testosterone-fueled frustration (and probably undersized genitals) for assaults on hooligan “fans” of other teams. In this case, the opposition is Rome, who’s facing Napoli in a championship tournament. The Apaches have lots of tattoos and dumb haircuts, painting banners bearing slogans and iconography that skew more Hitler Youth than Go Team. They bellow their chants, drink a lot, praise their brotherhood, ruthlessly tease the overweight kid in their ranks and reek heavily of drooling-bonehead quasi-nationalist fervor. And Sandro is losing his taste for it.
See, he’s pushing 50, and probably contemplating, like the rest of us, what the hell he’s getting out of hanging with his mates and planning civil unrest strictly for chaos’ sake. There’s no money in it, just suffering and futile fraternity. One of the young Apaches recently was killed in a scrum, and the kid’s teenage brother, Angelo (Ciro Nacca), is under Sandro’s wing. Sandro works a blue-collar gig at a spa and bathhouse, where he meets Terry (Antonia Truppo); they appreciate each other’s chiseled features, then wonder if there’s more to this than a one-night schtup. Meanwhile, Sandro and fellow Apache elder Barabba (Salvatore Pelliccia) face a potential coup in their ranks led by Pechegno (Simone Borrelli) after a disagreement about a banner — delicate flowers, these guys are, and vulnerable to such featherweight breezes. Is it a surprise that violent doofuses might eventually turn and bite each other? And will Sandro, for perhaps the first time ever, opt for love and responsibility over a bricks-and-bats street kerfuffle?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Green Street Hooligans Underground is probably the most recognizable movie in the soccer-hooligan sub-sub-subgenre. Ultras also has some Fight Club blood in its veins, and a bit of American History X too.
Performance Worth Watching: Arena is a solid lead, and capably shows the chinks in Sandro’s weary armor without stating it outright.
Memorable Dialogue: “Honor the banned!” the Apaches chant at a game their pals aren’t allowed to attend.
Sex and Skin: Boobs and butts and some rutting, to show us that the Apaches aren’t incels.
Our Take: Francesco Lettieri’s ambitious direction is Ultras‘ greatest asset; he neatly marries docudrama authenticity with long takes and thoughtful photography. If only the screenplay was more dense. The characters are a shade or two shy of being three-dimensional, and the ideology of the Apaches remains obscure — evidence, perhaps, of Lettieri’s overly tentative approach to a controversial subject. Maybe the banners are more significant to hooligan pride than we might realize? A Google search reveals as much; the movie, less so.
The drama of Sandro’s change of heart and the Apache power struggle unfold predictably, which would be fine if Lettieri truly dug into the subject matter. We don’t get enough of the personal or working lives of these guys to truly understand who they are or what drove them to crave brutish violence and a creed that foregoes guns for fists and clubs. It’s a technically savvy film, and always visually interesting, but there are many better, more gripping stories about gang culture out there, whether they’re about underground boxing clubs, motorcycle gangs or mobster racketeers. Ultras falls squarely in the middle of that pack.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Ultras promises a glimpse into a curious and fascinating subculture, but doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.
Stream Ultras on Netflix