'Love and Bullets' ('Ammore e malavita'): Film Review | Venice 2017

Ammore e malavita Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
The Sound of Mafia.

The Italian Manetti Bros. premiered their Naples-set "Mafia musical" in competition in Venice.

Love and Bullets (Ammore e malavita) is what non-Italians might call a Mafia musical, though its Naples setting means the warbling criminals onscreen are technically part of the Camorra. Directed by the Manetti Bros. — who style their name like that, with the abbreviated English “Bros.,” even in Italian — this is, for all its longueurs, some ill-advised detours into English and a few tone-deaf jokes, a surprisingly enjoyable package. Indeed, Love and Bullets is this year’s best-received Italian film in the Venice competition so far and with the festival as its launch pad, it should do solid business when it opens locally Oct. 5, even though Roman and Milanese audiences will need Italian subtitles for some of the Neapolitan dialogue and lyrics.

Offshore, musicals in languages that aren’t English or French don’t tend to travel very well, but other festivals looking for a crowd-pleaser will love this while distributors might be persuaded to give it a shot if the Bros. manage to shear off a good 20 or so minutes of their protracted, two-hour-plus running time.

The film opens at the funeral of the crime boss Don Vincenzo (Carlo Buccirosso), whose blonde and bejeweled widow, Donna Maria (Claudia Gerini), is beside herself with grief. But she seems to be laying it on suspiciously thick, and when the first song kicks off, sung, in the pic’s first unexpectedly creative touch, by the corpse inside the casket, it’s obvious that they are not burying Don Vincenzo at all but someone who looks like him and who’s wondering who all these strangers are at his memorial service.

The main plot unfolds in the five days leading up to the funeral, as the film explains that Donna Maria, an avid fan of popcorn movies, has decided to give herself and her husband a life away from crime and the spotlight by faking her husband’s death, like 007 did in You Only Live Twice. His two henchmen, the bearded Rosario (mono-monikered actor-singer Raiz) and the clean-shaven Ciro (Giampaolo Morelli), are given the keys to the empire, but they need to make sure no one finds out that Don Vincenzo didn’t die of a gun wound in his butt obtained when hiding inside a basin full of mussels (it makes sense in the context of the movie). This means that unsuspecting nurse Fatima (Serena Rossi), who has seen Vincenzo alive and well in the operating room, needs to go.

There’s only a tiny inconvenience: Fatima and Ciro, who has come to kill her, used to be childhood sweethearts, as revealed in the film’s first show-stopper, a reworking of the song "Flashdance… What a Feeling" in Neapolitan, which is sung by Fatima and which reveals their shared backstory, cutesy flashbacks and all (the original music of this song was written by Italian Giorgio Moroder and the new lyrics are by the film’s songwriter, Alessandro Nelson Garofalo aka Nelson). Choosing Fatima over Vincenzo and a life of riches, however, comes at a price, and the rest of the film Ciro has to fight off Vincenzo’s small army of allies, from his former buddy Rosario to various other unsavory-looking types, who all want to avenge their (now supposedly dead) boss.

As the title suggests, this is, at its heart, a love story set against the backdrop of (organized) crime. The film’s other musical highlight, an original song called "Bang Bang," was written by Pivio and Aldo de Scalzi and is also sung by Fatima. She’s handcuffed to Ciro, who literally mows down one bad guy after the other while she belts out a song about how he avoids his feelings like he avoid bullets. These songs go right to the heart of the material and, since Rossi is as good a singer as she is an actress, these tunes really pop. Both songs also benefit from smart staging, placing the actors in the thick of the action.

But there are a few too many detours that aren’t really necessary and end up slowing down especially the second half of the film. There are two English-language songs, for example, one sung by a group of tourists who get robbed in the “Gomorrah ’hood,” which they — supposedly ironically — praise as the “ultimate touristic experience,” and the other in New York, where family members of the rivaling factions live. The tourists are never seen before or after their single sequence so they don’t add anything to the main story, while the New York subplot is a painful interlude with bad English-language dialogue. And while the Neapolitan words to the songs are frequently clever and/or beautiful, especially in their use of slant rhymes, the English-language lyrics, co-written by Mark Hanna, are also nothing to write home about. What to think of a passage like: “What’s in a name like Strozzolone/Afraid for his life and home/Makes him feel so alone”? Indeed, the film would have benefitted from dropping these altogether and keeping the action confined to the Neapolitan characters in Naples.

The Neapolitans are known for their colorful cursing, and some of it is used to humorous effect here, including by both Don Vincenzo and Donna Maria. But there are also a couple of moments in which foreigners become the butt of a joke, scoring easy laughs with what is essentially racism packaged as humor. Since these characters otherwise don’t have any personalities that might disprove what the joke is insinuating, this is a problem.

In the acting department, besides Rossi, Gerini is the standout as the aggrieved widow, going full-out over-the-top in a performance that knows this is explicitly not a film (or TV series) like the uber-naturalistic Gomorrah. There’s also a hilarious in-joke that alludes to Gerini’s turn in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in which, as Pontius Pilate’s wife, she spoke Latin. But Gerini’s Donna Maria here fails to comprehend the dead language whenever her Latin adage-spouting lawyer turns up.

In terms of the male leads, Morelli, who looks like the Italian cousin of Armie Hammer and who has worked with the Manetti Bros. before, looks a tad uncomfortable when he’s required to sing. The contrast with Raiz, a born entertainer and his frequent onscreen partner, just highlights the problem. The reason audiences will still believe in their love story is because Morelli can pull off cool nonchalance like no one's business when he's not singing, and the actor playing the younger version of the character in some flashbacks has the kind of guileless innocence that audiences just know must still be buried somewhere deep inside the hardened Ciro. For his part, Buccirosso manages the difficult feat of making Don Vincenzo seem both powerful and pathetic. 

The three women responsible for the film’s overall look — director of photography Francesca Amitrano, production designer Noemi Marchica and costume designer Daniela Salernitano — all do solid work, even if Amitrano’s color correction job is very uneven. The score, also by Pivio and De Scalzi, further complements the material and ups the tension whenever necessary.

Production companies: Madeleine, Manetti Bros. Film
Cast: Giampaolo Morelli, Serena Rossi, Claudia Gerini, Carlo Buccirosso, Raiz, Franco Ricciardi, Antonio Buonomo
Directors: Manetti Bros.
Screenwriters: Michelangelo La Neve, Manetti Bros
Producers: Carlo Macchitella, Manetti Bros
Director of photography: Francesca Amitrano
Production designer: Noemi Marchica
Costume designer: Daniela Salernitano
Editor: Federico Maria Maneschi
Music: Pivio & Aldo De Scalzi
Lyrics: Nelson
Choreography: Luca Tommassini
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Raicom

In Neapolitan, English
139 minutes