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As showcased by many a Zoom call over the past year, the months of pandemic-forced lockdown have led to the cultivation of some rather impressive displays of male hirsuteness. With barbershops shut, once-neat(ish) locks around the world were left to run wild, and many men decided to offer their facial hair enough freedom to keep up with whatever madness was going on up top.
But few will have come close to the mighty mane sported by Luciano, the central character in Directors’ Fortnight entry The Tale of King Crab and a man labeled a “madman, an aristocrat, a saint and a drunkard.”
With his phenomenally unkempt and thick, straggly head of hair accompanied by the sort of dense, forest-like beard you could mop the floor with (and it looks like it has been used for this purpose on many occasions), it becomes clear in the film’s opening scenes that the last of these descriptions is probably closest to the truth — especially given the bottle of wine from which our protagonist is regularly seen glugging. Played by Gabriele Silli (who the film’s Italian directors, Matteo Zoppis and Alessio Rigo de Righi, claim spent a Christian Bale-like “three years” growing his beard for the role), Luciano and his dark story of loss and redemption (and plenty of booze) is at the heart of The Tale of King Crab.
This is the directors’ first step away from documentaries, but like their previous two films together, the adventure is rooted in legend passed down from generation to generation, relayed by a group of elderly Italian gentlemen who meet at a hunting lodge in the countryside near Rome. Luciano, it is said, was a man in the late 1800s or early 1900s whose predilection for alcohol, a woman in his village and the rite of passage through an ancient gateway set him on a collision course with the local landowning prince, resulting in a horrible tragedy and his self-imposed exile to Argentina’s far-flung southerly region of Tierra del Fuego.
“We actually heard the story about this guy while we were making our previous film, but it was all very vague,” says Zoppis. “There were certain specific plots — that he’d fought against the prince, that something terrible had happened and that he’d escaped to South America. The information we gathered just led right to that moment.”
These elements of the story make up the first chapter of The Tale of King Crab, “The Saint Orsio Misdeed” (Saint Orsio is the patron saint of the Italian municipality of Vejano, where the story is set).
Things take a stranger turn in the second half, poetically titled “The Arsehole of the World” (which the filmmakers assert is related to Tierra del Fuego’s distance rather than its appearance).
Although Luciano’s legend ends with his departure from Italy, Zoppis and Rigo de Righi picked up a scent (of sorts) during their research, finding a man with the same name who arrived in Buenos Aires around the same time. “So we took a trip out to Argentina, to where we thought he ended up, and started reading local stories, trying to imagine why this character would have gone down there,” says Rigo de Righi.
With these new stories and ideas at hand, the two filmmakers wove a new, redemptive conclusion for their hairy antihero, one that finds him battling ruthless mercenaries to track down lost Spanish gold hidden in a remote lake. And it’s here that the titular King Crab makes his grand, spiny entrance, used by Luciano as a scuttling compass to lead him to the plunder.
But why a crab? As it turns out, the two filmmakers have something of a history of including wild creatures in their work. Their first documentary together, Belva Nera, is about a panther and the second, Il Solengo, is about a boar. “Maybe we just can’t do a film without an animal,” suggests Zoppis.
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The Green Knight