This period piece set in the early 1920s stars Franco Nero as Nicola, a recently released prisoner who comes back to Naples with the goal to become a lawyer. Instead, he is drawn back into the underworld of the Guappo, a Neapolitan sect known for their boisterous ways, flamboyant clothing, and skill with a straight razor. Originally clashing with local boss Don Gaetano Fungillo, played by Fabio Testi, Nicola becomes his ally for a time, but the more the bookish ex-con sees how entrenched the camorra, or mafia, is in the city, the more it repels him. Eventually obtaining his law degree, Nicola tries to change the system from within while Don Guappo ends up on the other side of the bars.
One of the great things about the settings Italy can provide is that they are static. Throw on the right period clothing, and the timeless avenues of Naples could portray many eras. Director Pasquale Squitieri takes full advantage of this opportunity, and I Guappi feels absolutely genuine. While the film does feature whip fighting, dog wrestling, and a couple of razor fights, the focus is more on the human drama. By I Guappi's end, the film strikes a tone resembling Nicolas Ray's 1949 film Knock on Any Door. Claudia Cardinale also appears as Don Fungillo's woman, and during the filming she fell in love with Squitieri and became his longtime companion.
I Guappi is a welcome change from the run of the mill gangster or polizia film because of both the moral themes and stylistic choices. Fans of Testi and Nero will rejoice at the charismatic paring between the two as sadly the only other silver screen pairing of the two came in 2010s Letters to Juliet. I Guappi is highly recommended to all lovers of Italian film, and it stands as an unsung gem.