In places where opportunities and hope are harder to obtain than a loaded gun, the glorification of a seemingly effortless and powerful criminal lifestyle is engraved deeply into the youth’s psyche like a poisonous spell. Irremediably, it becomes their most tangible aspiration. Kids
there do not dream of becoming doctors, lawyers or teachers, but drug dealers, murderers, or gangsters who walk through life intoxicated by the fear of others disguised as respect. It’s just the same in a rough American neighborhood, a Mexican border town, a war torn African capital, or an isolated village in the Italian countryside.
Is in this last setting that director Francesco Munzi
unfolds “Black Souls” (Anime Nere
), an understated mafia tale that is brutally unflinching and sobering when distilling the built-in conventions of the genre and reapplying them in a powerfully stark manner. First, Munzi takes us on a short trip to the high-stakes world of international drug trafficking and the money laundering schemes that fueled it. Brothers Luigi (Marco Leonardi
) and Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta
) manage the operation as a family business each with a distinct approach to getting things done. Luigi is the threatening brute that’s willing to get his hands dirty, while Rocco prefers to be as diplomatic as the drug underworld allows. But just as we are prompted to believe the film will follow on the footsteps of countless predecessors, the perspective shifts to a much more intimate, almost pastoral, look at the unbreakable ties and honor-driven feuds between opposite families within the same criminal microcosm: the Calabrian hills in southern Italy.
Making a humble living from farming and raising cattle, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane
), the eldest sibling in the dynasty, disapproves of his younger brothers lifestyle, which he left behind years ago. But in spite of his father’s evident disdain for his siblings’ violent ways, Luciano’s son Leo
), a teenage boy full of senseless bravado and thirst for retribution, admires his uncle Luigi ‘s status as an authority figure within the community. Projecting fearlessness and absolute dispassion to be part of the gang, Leo
grows detached from his father and begins partaking in the increasingly dangerous disputes with their adversaries. With Luigi back in town, old grudges resurfacing, and Leo
’s reckless ability to start trouble, tragedy permanently lurks over the entire clan.
This perpetual feeling of an imminent disaster approaching is what makes the film a restrained and potent statement. Intelligently, the filmmaker chooses unnerving tension over gruesome imagery. Of course, violence is unavoidable in a story like this, but those scenes are much more effective because of their importance in the layered emotional landscape presented. Pride is a boundless catalyst for hatred, and that’s what motivates the individuals here to die in the name of their lineage. Leo
loses respect for his father because the promise of easy cash and overall badassery is exponentially more enticing than arduously working the land. Luciano is a coward in his son’s eyes for wanting to live a peaceful life, but the man can hardly experience that as he is caught up in between his brothers’ unfinished business and preventing Leo
from following their path. It’s all the subtext that is embedded in every interaction that keeps “Black Souls” from becoming predictable, and instead asks us to ponder on the complex set of characters on screen.
Hauntingly somber, but all the more enthralling because of it, Vladan Radovic
’s cinematography inconspicuously contributes to Munzi’s exploration of human darkness. A prime example of its gloomy appeal is a funeral sequence that centers both on a mother grieving her son, and the inevitably brutal consequences of the event. However, although a viscerally serious tone permeates the film, Munzi and Radovic were clever enough to capture beautiful moments of rural life that give “Black Souls” a timeless atmosphere: Luigi singing a traditional tune for the sheer joy of singing or Luciano walking among the ruins of an ancient church quietly denoting his religious devotion. Such glimpses of vulnerability create a mob film that is more concerned with the subtleties beneath the gunshots.
Indispensable for an ensemble piece like “Black Souls,” the entire cast, even those in minimal roles, is made up of a group of actors capable of refraining from ostentatious performances and focusing on the characters’ essential, nuanced qualities. Their conflicts are so profoundly intertwined that a weak link would have been problematic. Still, among these talented group, Fabrizio Ferracane
as Luciano gives the most quietly compelling performance as a father, a brother, and a son who can’t recognize himself anymore or fit in among those around him. Ultimately, Ferracane steals the film in the riveting and shocking conclusion.
“Black Souls” delivers a gutsy twist on the tiresome works that showcase villains as stars and their feats as heroic. Munzi offers authenticity and poignancy ignoring our expectations and portraying his characters as deeply misguided people for whom loyalty is a golden asset and death is a common outcome. His film is about unspoken rules and unforgivable transgressions that might appear irrational to the outsider, but unquestionable to those involved.
"Black Souls" is now playing in NYC and opens in Los Angeles on April 24th.
Director Francesco Munzi
will be doing a Skype Q&A from Rome, Italy on Saturday 4/18 at both the Angelika Film Center in NYC (after the 7:30 pm show) & at the Angelika Film Center in Fairfax, Va (after the 8pm show).
For all the play dates and theaters across the U.S. visit Here