'Pericle' ('Pericle il nero'): Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Punchy and disorienting.

Riccardo Scamarcio plays a hunted hit-man on the run in a 'Gomorrah'-style mafia thriller set in Belgium.

A double-crossed foot-soldier from the Italian underworld rebels against his overlord in the dark thriller Pericle (Pericle il nero), full of improbable events but made engrossing by Riccardo Scamarcio’s brooding performance in his strongest, and oddest, role to date. Director Stefano Mordini’s adaptation of Giuseppe Ferrandino’s hit noir novel of the 90’s, Pericles the Black, falls somewhere between the surreally cruel Italian criminality of Gomorrah and a cuddly Inspector Maigret yarn set in the scenic Belgian countryside. Though there’s more French than Italian dialogue in this Dardennes bros. coproduction set between Brussels and Calais, the abiding spirit is Neapolitan in street dialect that may well require subtitles even in Italy to achieve a modicum of narrative clarity. Overall, it packs enough offbeat punch to do business on Euro and art markets after its Certain Regard bow in Cannes.

Though Abel Ferrara was once touted as the film’s possible director, Mordini is probably better at getting under the ethnic skin of the novel’s characters. It marks an important step up for a young director best known for his factory drama Steel.

The tale is narrated in a voice-over by Pericle (Scamarcio), a good-looking, grubby and non-too-bright rent collector of 35 in the employ of Don Luigi Pizza (Gigio Morra). The latter is a modest mafia boss who long ago moved operations from Naples to the open spaces of Belgium. Whenever he sets his sights on a pizzeria, he buys it on his own terms, or else sends Pericle to make the deal attractive. Using a sandbag as a simple but effective tool of persuasion, the youth follows a ferocious attack with what appears to be his own specialty: he sodomizes the hapless victim. He is first seen calmly making use of this technique on a short, squat man bent over a chair. His ability to emotionally detach himself from his sexual performance makes him something of a star (or a freak) in his circle, and also comes in handy acting in porn films.

The turning point comes early on, when Don Luigi becomes irritated at the hostile tone of the parish priest during his Sunday sermon. Pericle is sent on a punitive mission, but the presence of an unforeseen witness sends his plans awry. Meanwhile, a powerful female camorra boss, Signorinella, arrives in Brussels and applies for Don Luigi’s protection. Played with fascinating grittiness by Maria Luisa Santella (who memorably debuted as Nino Manfredi’s hooker-girlfriend in Ugly, Dirty and Bad in 1976), her authentic Neapolitan accent is even harder to follow than the rest of the clan’s, but she injects a note of surreal comedy into a small but essential role.

If he wasn’t played by Scarmarcio, Italy’s idolized and very seductive star, Pericle would be a hard character to like. Often photographed un-shirted to show off a long, sexy stripe of black tattoo cutting his back in two, he’s an unschooled killer, heroin addict and desperado with a soft spot for his mother. Yet however unsavory he is as a cold-blooded mugger and rapist, his narrating voice helps build sympathy, and he is permitted some good qualities like affection for kids. Though the scene is hard to swallow, given what we know of the silent self-absorption, he pours on the charm with an unresponsive saleswoman in a pastry shop (Marina Fois) until she invites him home. Though he has practical reasons to shack up, their affair goes beyond that, offering him an illusion of momentary safety and the vision of a normal life.

Still these scenes tend to drag on, lowering the tension until a fast-moving if murky climax brings back Don Luigi and his grown daughter Anna (Valentina Acca). As in any self-respecting mafia tale, in the end it’s all about family, as though childhood trauma was enough to motivate any amount of criminal rampage.

Here, the take-home is more in the atmosphere than the story-telling. Attentive tech work contributes its share, notably Matteo Cocco’s often startling cinematography which incorporates surreal images like a monstruous cruise ship glimpsed through the fog on a beach and symbolic churches, priests and crosses resonating in the background. Peter Von Poehl’s edgy score is spiced with unexpected songs.

 

Production companies: Buena Onda in association with Rai Cinema, Les films du fleuve, Les productions du tresor

Cast: Riccardo Scamarcio, Marina Fois, Valentina Acca, Gigio Morra, Maria Luisa Santella, Lucia Ragni

Director: Stefano Mordini

Screenwriters: Francesca Marciano, Valia Santella, Stefano Mordini based on a novel by Giuseppe Ferranino

Producers: Viola Prestieri, Valeria Golino, Ricardo Scamarcio

Co-producers: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Alain Attal

Executive producers: Delphine Tomson, Marie Le Mire, Xavier Amblard

Director of photography: Matteo Cocco

Production designer: Igor Gabriel

Costume designer: Antonella Cannarozzi

Editor: Jacopo Quadri

Music: Peter Von Poehl

Casting director: Francesco Vedovati

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Certain Regard)
In French, Italian

105 minutes

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