Black Souls (Anime nere)

Italy (2014) Dir. Francesco Munzi

When one thinks of films concerning the Mafia obviously The Godfather will immediately spring to mind, along with Goodfellas and the modern Italian update in Gommarah. With the template pretty much established by these films, Black Souls will likely prove to be either a pleasant surprise or a disappointing one with its unique depiction of this criminal world.

At the centre of this tale is the Carbone family, headed by three brothers – flashy hard man Luigi (Marco Leonardi), serious moneyman Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) and the eldest Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane). Whilst the other two are based in Milan and live urbane lifestyles, Luciano lives in the mountains of the Aspromonte region in southern Italy where he prefers to herd goats.

Luciano’s 20 year-old son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo) has no interest in farming life so he heads to Milan and asks his uncles to let him join the “real” family business. But before he left the mountains, Leo’s literal parting shot reignited a long-standing feud with another family. Luigi and Rocco take Leo back home to resolve the issue but some old wounds just refuse to close.  

Your standard gangster plot but with a different approach to the telling. Based on the novel by Gioacchino Criaco, Black Souls stands out from the other aforementioned Mafia films by eschewing the violence and outrage and focusing on the introspection and personal affect the feud has on the innocent members of the family. Plus they are not “mafia” but “ndrangheta” as their Calabrian roots dictate.

Some trademarks still exist, such as the inter-family round table gatherings where the elderly Dons are venerated, often through gritted teeth, cavalcades of cars and men to escort the family heads everywhere, and of course the strong willed wives enjoying the lavish lifestyle courtesy of their husbands but not the accompanying danger – in this case relegated largely to supporting cast status.

Even with these familiar elements in place this film feels less of a cliché than those that revel in them, due to the measured pace and the bucolic serenity of the mountains. This does not mean the result is one of tedium or complete placidity – these are still gangsters we are dealing with, one who make their money in drugs and solve their problems with guns.

Revealed midway through the film, the Carbone’s original territory was the mountains and where the now late patriarch made his name. The Milan setting represents the expansion and modernising of the business, which Rocco and Luigi take care of, while Luciano tired of the bustle of the city and the violence that surrounded them.

This divergence of ideals has created a small but tangible rift between the brothers and the noticeable differences win the family members when it comes to sharing the wealth. When Luigi comes bearing gifts, his elderly mother Rosa (Aurora Quattrocchi), who lives with Luciano and his family, wonders what to do with the expensive pearl necklace her gave her.

Once Leo’s actions reignite the dormant feud and the families butt heads once again, the debate as to handle the situation reveals the widening gap in the thought processes of the brothers. Rocco and Luigi want to bring out the heavy artillery while Luciano believes discussions and gestures are the way forward.

First blood is drawn through a fatality which begins a downward spiral of tit-for-tat exchanges between the two sides, bringing us firmly into standard crime thriller territory yet director Francesco Munzi, in just his third feature film, still manages to keep things eerily calm and restrained, in the process quietly building up the tension as the stakes get higher and higher.

Munzi has gone for a naturalistic approach in his presentation and direction, as the rural setting dictates – even the élan of the sleek looking metropolis Milan is depicted as sterile, as if to presage the imminent tragedy about to hit the family. One poignant scene set in the country sees all of the goats lined up outside Luciano’s farmhouse as an ominous heavy wind blows in anticipation of another attack from the other family.

There is a heavy reliance on shadows and natural lighting for the nocturnal scenes set in the mountains and uses them to good effect to build upon the silent terror of expectation as the feud intensifies. The violence may be limited to three terse instances but each one counts, the finale being the most shocking on a number of levels.

If we are to take anything from this denouement it is that we have nobody to blame but ourselves and Munzi takes us on a slow burning and stealthily affecting journey to realise this. There will be those who will bemoan the lack of bombast and visceral action for what is essentially a vendetta movie, and certainly some points lack energy, but that is to miss the point of the story being told.

Of the main cast it is quite likely that Marco Leonardi will be the most familiar name for many from playing the teenage Salvatore in the classic Cinema Paradiso. All grown up he plays Luigi with all the swagger you’d expect from a modern day gangster. Peppino Mazzotta’s Rocco is quite ambiguous, never letting on if he is dark hearted or just naturally stoic.  

Like the film itself, Luciano’s character is a slow burner and Fabrizio Ferracane is careful as to when he peels back the layers of his personality, until we are left with a man we no longer recognise. It’s a subtle performance and one that makes the final act. Many of the supporting cast were non-professionals made up of local villagers to accentuate the film’s natural feel.

It might take a while for Black Souls to connect with some viewers but if you enjoy the mechanics of a gangster feud and the study of personal loss over graphic violence, this is the film for you.