Eldest brother and goat farmer in the Calabrian hills, Luciano, has turned his back on the family drug operation his 20-year-old son Leo finds so appealing. But a careless act by Leo, aspiring to his uncles' lifestyles, pulls the whole family into a simmering feud.
Black Souls (Anime Nere), a crime melodrama from Italy in the official festival competition, is a dark journey indeed - but it does open with one corker of a gag.
Set in the secret world of the ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria’s mafia, we move quickly from a tense meet in the Netherlands, where some business is settled with head-shakes and eye-blinks, to the mountains of Southern Italy.
Four big men are crammed into a car now racing through the countryside of mountains and white rock. Two of them are brothers. One, Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) wears spectacles and a frown. The other is Luigi (Marco Leonardi) whose face is permanently pulled into a welcoming smirk that is part charm, part self defence. Luigi suggests the driver to take a detour. Rocco looks alarmed. Schooled in the language of mafia movies I thought all this was heading to a hit. But the intrigue turns mischievous. They pull up to a stone shed, grab their shooters, break-in and pull out a goat destined to be the main meal for the family feast. Rocco complains to Luigi that this is all kid stuff.
The movie has one other joke. “When are the crooks coming over for dinner?” asks Rocco’s wife Valeria (Barbora Bobulova). The rest of the movie is blacker than the inside of a goat. The story deals with a feud between warring mafia families. What it’s really about are the ties that bind, and here the bond is only ever destined to end in blood.
Director Francesco Munzi’s style has a quiet, brooding, icy menace; Cinematographer Vladan Radovic’s hand-held camera produces widescreen images where the shadows seem to swallow all light and life. These characters can’t escape ruin; they live in a place of slow decay. It’s a film of little chat and less action. Its dominant image is of ugly men, dressed for a funeral, sitting in semi-darkness and scowling.
This is a mafia movie as stern moral lesson and perhaps pointed social commentary. I understand that Calabria, like Sicily, has a fractious relationship with Italy’s power brokers that has led to a tradition of suspicion and a condition of neglect, allowing crime lords to fill the void. There’s no strutting violence, no self-delight, no invitation to get a vicarious thrill from watching bad men do gruesome things. When people die here it’s a sudden shock.
Black Souls involves sibling rivalry, one based in competition over personal style as much as an argument over moral code. Rocco and Luigi Carbone are veterans of the ’Ndrangheta of Milan, steeped in the cocaine trade. Rocco is the accountant and Luigi a chieftain. They have an elder brother Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane) who openly scorns the mafia. He has a Father Christmas beard and the heavy walk of a man who knows hard labour. Luciano has remained in the family hometown of Africo with his wife Antonia (Anna Ferruzzo) and teenage son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo).
Luciano makes a living as a goat herder in a place where anything on four legs seem to outnumber folks 100-to-one, a fact that rankles restless Leo who coverts the bling of Milan and the leather and fast cars of his rich uncles.
The plot has Leo acting out a useless revenge over some petty dispute that quickly escalates into something more serious than nuisance vandalism. Luciano begs for mercy with Carbone family rival, the Barracas, who appear to rule the district (and are responsible for the murder of the Carbone patriarch). Rocco and Luigi are summoned from Milan to return to Africo, ostensibly to calm things and discipline Leo. But the Barraca’s and their allies see an opportunity to realign the turf and so do Luigi and Rocco and their cohorts. Luciano seethes on the sidelines and resents the fact that his son is a pawn in a power game he wants no part of.
This isn’t as exciting as it sounds. I don’t think Munzi cares much about plot, suspense or the tradition of the crime film. His splendid craft instead is directed toward a portrait of a society that feeds its own destruction. He seems to know and pity this place where insults are not forgotten and tradition is a heartache. It’s a place where arranged marriages are still a way to settle mafia business and a family victimises its own.
For all its poignant cultural details and the intelligence of its vision, Black Souls feels remote and academic. Munzi nags his point rather than persuades and seduces. The dialogue scenes feel like a stage-bound revenge tragedy. Still, throughout there are moments where I felt the stakes here: the coil of limited lives, the pull of family and the death trap of duty.
Watch 'Black Souls'
Monday 9 August, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Tuesday 10 August, 2:50am on SBS World Movies
Wednesday 11 August, 1:10am on SBS World Movies
France, Italy, 2014
Genre: Crime, Drama
Director: Francesco Munzi
Starring: Marco Leonardi, Peppino Mazzotta, Fabrizio Ferracane, Barbora Bobulova