Italian Crime Thriller Like Sheep Among Wolves Will Leave You Waiting to Exhale

Italian crime drama Like Sheep Among Wolves (Come pecore in mezzo ai lupi) directed by Lyda Patitucci is a sleek and sophisticated pressure-cooker thriller set in Rome. It focuses on twin protagonists: Stefania (Isabella Ragonese) also known as Vera, and undercover police officer embedded with Baltic gangsters, and her estranged younger brother, Bruno (Andrea Arcangeli) who was imprisoned for burglary and has found himself embroiled with the gangsters Vera is attempting to capture. Although the film is a fine thriller, what sets it apart from many other works in the genre is how emotionally intelligent and devastating it is.

Stefania is living a spartan life in anonymously rented apartments. Each day she follows a workout routine, drinks a smoothie, ensures her hair is dyed correctly, and joins a group of Serbian mobsters as they go about their unpleasant business. She is their “supplier” – she finds them weapons and communication devices. Her double life is weighing on her. Not just the extreme loneliness of being disconnected from any kind of normality, but the façade she has to keep up when she sees the gang commit atrocious acts of violence. She tells her handlers that she’s not even sure what her name is any longer, and after a night of heavy drinking goes back to her previous apartment where she finds her ex-fiancé has moved on.

Bruno is working a minimum wage job with a former prison buddy. His life is one of near poverty and he’s desperately trying to get the money together to leave the country with his young daughter, Marta (Carolina Michelangeli) who is at risk because of her mother’s intense mental health struggles. Bruno tries to turn to his hypocritical and ultra-religious father, Sante (Tommaso Ragno) who simply tells him he doesn’t like the way his granddaughter is being raised and that Bruno should be a better father. Sante has also cut Stefania out of the family after the death of his wife. For Sante and his patriarchal backwardness family honour and appearances are more important than caring for his children.

Bruno and Vera meet when Bruno is brought in as extra muscle on an armoured car hold up. They recognise each other but can’t react in front of the murderous group. Stefania warns her brother to stay away and although he won’t listen to her at first, he does begin to let Stefania into his and Marta’s lives. A day at a fairground becomes a small revelation for how much the siblings have missed each other and how a normal life is almost terrifying to Stefania. Witnessing the connection between her brother and her niece, Stefania feels that she has something to protect that is beyond her job (previously the only source of purpose in her life). Stefania is a woman who has been holding her breath for far too long no matter which identity she is using and the thought of breathing out, and getting out, is distressingly necessary. The tough as nails cop is bending under pressure she could not imagine.

Filippo Gravino’s script is uncompromisingly brutal in places. The violence is stark and there are scenes that are vicious and necessitate a strong stomach. Patitucci shows Vera narrowly dodging a sexual assault and Marta watching Bruno being pitilessly beaten by a man he thought of as his friend. Those scenes are but small appetisers when it comes to a point in the film where it turns from crime thriller into revenge thriller.

What is most effective is how Patitucci uses the emotional states of her characters. Bruno is a loving father who is dealing with a deck stacked against him. He doesn’t hate his ex-wife, Janine (Clara Ponsot) and would do anything to ensure her safety and Marta’s but he cannot control her violent mood swings or keep her on her medication. When she attempts suicide (probably not for the first time) he knows that Marta cannot be left in her care. The system is not there to support him or her. The innocent and gentle Marta tries to please her parents but also cannot negotiate her mother’s moods. In her young life she has endured so much and is perhaps living in a near constant state of shock.

Primarily Patitucci’s focus in on Stefania and what she must endure. She is supported by her female handler but bullied by her male counterpart. Toughness has been burned into her character from a young age and any kind of breakdown is a sign of weakness she cannot tolerate. Yet, Patitucci puts her through the fires of multiple hells where she is only able to weep over the death of a neighbour’s dog and not the gruesome acts she has been entrapped in. Witnessing Stefania hold fast through the most heinous situations and knowing how close she is to losing every version of herself (sometimes by simply allowing herself to love) distinguishes Like Sheep Among Wolves from its counterparts.

Isabella Ragonese’s performance is a bravado turn. We feel her every conflicting emotion, her sense of isolation, her enormous loss, her righteous fury, and the weight of the pressure bearing down on her in a manner that means one small slip up means not only the case going under but death for anyone who is in her orbit which is why she has kept people away from her. Andrea Arcangeli is immensely sympathetic as Bruno who has haplessly gotten so far over his head that he too risks everything and everyone he loves. Holding her own against the adult cast is Carolina Michelangeli whose innocence has been shattered through multiple traumas and for whom the audience will feel as strong a desire to protect as her father and aunt.

Like Sheep Among Wolves rarely dips in its pacing although some parts of the film can feel extraneous and others a little less developed than they could be (more of Stefania’s past beyond family alienation and a broken relationship would have been helpful). The film’s violence and bleakness might be too gruelling in places but that comes with the genre and audiences should be accustomed to it. Like Sheep Among Wolves excels when it is dealing with the psychological ramifications of undercover police work and when it becomes a film about a woman who finds herself once again connected with a family she thought lost to her. An accomplished debut from Lyda Patitucci which has many edge-of-your-seat moments heightened by character fates that are easily invested in.

Director: Lyda Patitucci

Cast: Isabella Ragonese, Andrea Arcanegli, Carolina Michelangeli

Writer: Filippo Gravino

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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