'Black Souls': Venice Review

Francesca Casciarri
There's not much conventional drama, but authentic atmosphere and charismatic characters make this one of the most convincing films about Italy's 'Ndrangheta crime lords.

The Calabrian mafia doesn’t forgive in Francesco Munzi's classic Greek tragedy

Between the Sicilian mafia, the Neapolitan camorra, the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia and the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, Italy has enough organized crime to power an army of film and TV dramas. But how many ways can you say “violence begets violence”?

Black Souls (Anime nere), based on a novel by Gioacchino Criaco and directed by award-winning auteur Francesco Munzi, chooses the classic route of Greek tragedy, which is a natural match for the hard-faced, tight-lipped characters who spiral into general disaster. The film communicates an unusual authenticity that will win it kudos and much festival exposure. Yet audiences weaned on The Godfather and shoot-'em-up mafia series like The Octopus could find a lack of blood-curdling excitement in this dark psychological tale, more blood feud than gang war.

Munzi's career was launched with two sensitive immigrant dramas, Saimir and The Rest of the Night; this is his big step up to Venice competition and more mainstream audiences. Here, the sober naturalism of the acting (most of the cast is known for their stage work) and the heartbreaking beauty of the wild Aspromonte mountains on the Mediterranean coast leave a strong impression that the viewer is being taken behind the scenes of a criminal family that still raises goats while it runs an international drug ring. The story itself avoids the complicated structure of Matteo Garrone’s arty Gomorra, suggesting audiences will have an easier time digesting the tragedy of three brothers. But though it doesn't have Gomorra's comprehension problems, it also lacks that film's iconic cinematic imagery and seems ultimately far less memorable.

The first brother is the fascinating Luigi (Marco Leonardi of Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and Like Water for Chocolate), a cocky fellow who always has a little smile on his face. In Amsterdam, he does a deal with some Spanish partners before returning to his base in Milan. There he works with brother Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta), who is the sober accountant of the family, a family man in glasses and a suit married to a northerner (Barbora Bobulova). Rocco is always disapproving of Luigi’s spontaneous activities, like stealing a couple of goats and butchering them for lunch. He also frowns on their teenage nephew Leo (newcomer Giuseppe Fumo) turning up in Milan to work.

The first sequences foster the expectation that this is going to be an update on Visconti’s classic southerners-in-Milan story Rocco and His Brothers, but guess again. The action is about to shift to Calabria and the ancient, crumbling, crime-ridden town of Africo. Leo is the only child of their eldest brother, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), an eccentric hot-head who has chosen to herd goats instead of going into business.

When Leo's foolish prank brings uncle Luigi back home to patch things up, the situation devolves into a blood feud, complete with somber family powwows, weeping women in black and a funeral. It hardly matters what happens next, though the film does end with a welcome twist.

Munzi and his cast concentrate their energy on creating realistic characters out of piercing looks and monosyllables. Leonardi and Mazzotta are charismatic and highly individualized anti-heroes, but Ferracane has the thankless role of playing a decent, God-fearing man with no control over his son, and thus no respect. Young Fumo’s intensity gets him noticed as Leo.

Women play a decidedly secondary role in this 'Ndragheta circle.  Bobulova, the biggest name in the cast, is a disdainful, perennially sidelined Kay Corleone figure, but she gets to deliver one of the best lines: “Oh, are the crooks coming over for dinner tonight?” And that's one of the longest sentences in the film.

Production companies: Cinemaundici, Babe Films, Rai Cinema in association with On My Own
Cast: Marco Leonardi, Peppino Mazzotta, Fabrizio Ferracane, Barbora Bobulova, Anna Ferruzzo, Giuseppe Fumo
Director: Francesco Munzi
Screenwriters: Francesco Munzi, Fabrizio Ruggirello, Maurizio Braucci based on a novel by Gioacchino Criacco
Producers: Luigi Musini, Olivia Musini
Coproducers: Fabio Conversi, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Gianluca Arcopinto
Director of photography: Vladan Radovic
Production designer: Luca Servino
Costume designer: Marina Roberti
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Music: Giuliano Taviani
Sales: Rai Com

No rating, 108 minutes