With films like Gomorra charting the impact of organised crime in Italy on a much wider scale and on its way to becoming a globalised industry, it's difficult to understand the rationale and impetus that would bring Claudio Caligari to look back to the less glamourised reality of drugs and crime on ordinary people in the outlying suburbs of Rome twenty years ago. Set in Ostia in 1995, Non essere cattivo (Don't be Bad) seems intent to return almost nostalgically to the townships of Pasolini's Accatone and Mamma Roma, and assess the impact drugs and crime have had on the inhabitants of these districts, with a more updated Mean Streets feel. If the intentions are good, the execution sadly falls somewhat short of the mark.
Non essere cattivo charts the attempts of two life-long friends, Vittorio and Cesare, to live with or find a way out of the lifestyle they have been caught up in. They can only be described as petty thugs, dealing drugs, getting into fights with rivals, asserting their authority as the top dogs in their neighbourhood. Fond of having a good time, the two young men occasionally partake of the drugs they are selling, but after one particularly bad drug experience, Vittorio decides that he has had enough. Having met Linda, he decides it's time to get off the streets and settle down in a regular job. He tries to convince Cesare to do the same by trying to get him a job on his building site, but with a sick niece at home, Cesare needs to earn more money and more quickly and finds that the lure of his old life keeps calling him back.
The story of Vittorio and Cesare is a rather conventional one of a life of crime on the streets, and the attempts of both men to rise above their circumstances and make something better of their lives before it destroys them. There's not really any greater drive than that, so in order for the film to maintain interest you need to relate to or sympathise with Vittorio and Cesare to some extent, but the characters are rather one-dimensional. The supporting and female characters are not particularly well-defined either, mainly silent and ineffectual in their attempts to influence the men, although there are flashes of personality now and again.
If there is a film Non essere cattivo bears a closer relationship to it's not Gomorra, Attacone or Mean Streets, but Trainspotting. By comparison however, Caligari's direction is lacking edge and personality. Rather statically filmed, it lacks dramatic drive, style or dynamism, relying on some pumping 90s' house and dance music to enliven the pace now and again. If it's going for a relatively smaller scale and unglamourised reality however those ambitions are hindered by the conventional narrative trajectory of the film that doesn't permit any kind of gritty realism. It's fairly obvious where the respective choices of lifestyle are going to lead Vittorio and Cesare, and it's only really when you get to the end of the film that you'll perhaps find yourself moved to some extent by the grim inevitability of it all.