It opens on a gray shot, with a cement shore forming the horizon between dark skies and cold water. Two men, shot from behind, stand far apart, looking like bookends in the frame. A boat approaches, and the men get in, beginning a journey across the channel and into the world of real-life southern Italian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta.
From the opening shot, Francesco Munzi’s “Black Souls” (“Anime Nere”) is the type of film that, through intimate details and transportative landscapes, makes you feel as if you’ve been somewhere. The Italian-language mafia drama, based on Gioacchino Criaco’s novel by the same name, tells the tragic story of the Carbone brothers. Luigi (Marco Leonardi) is a muscled-up drug dealer with a penchant for goat stealing and folk songs. His brother, Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) is a smartly dressed businessman with a northern wife and a lavish home. Meanwhile, Fabrizio Ferracane convincingly emotes steel-eyed trepidation as the eldest, Luciano, a shepherd in the mountain town of Africo who is desperate to keep his hands clean and steer his foolish son, Leo (newcomer Giuseppe Fumo) away from a life of crime.
Despite his father’s stern efforts, Leo is drawn to the allure of the family business. He shoots up a bar after the owner — with whom the Carbones have a deep-seated blood feud — insults his family’s honor. Leo then flees to Milan in the hopes of becoming his uncles’ young protege, but he succeeds only in bringing the whole family back to the Calabrian mountain to settle the rivalry once and for all.
And so what begins as a transnational crime thriller develops into a family drama driven by grief. Violence darkens rather than enlivens the film, adding weight to the grudge under which the Carbone brothers seem destined to buckle. While the story tends to wander away from its focus from time to time, the familiar, lived-in quality of the set remains a constant throughout. The walls and drawers of the family home, with their old photos and yellowing obituaries, are the ghosts of generations of other black souls whose presences silently propel the film’s action.
There’s a calmness throughout “Black Souls” that separates it from glamorously violent mafia films like “The Godfather” and puts it more in line with Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah” (2008), a neorealist triumph set in a Neapolitan wasteland. While Garrone masterfully details the connection of small-time Camorra gangsters to an international crime network, Munzi does not make nearly as strong a statement on the modern global mafia, choosing instead to focus on Italy.
“I made this film in a town that legal professionals and journalists stigmatize as one of the most mafia‐ridden places in Italy, one of the nerve centres of the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta: Africo,” Munzi wrote in his director’s statement. “Africo has a very tough history of criminality, but it can help us understand many things about our country. From Africo, we have a better view of Italy.”
Munzi’s view of Italy offers a critique on the traditionalism that keeps the ‘Ndrangheta in place. While the director’s previous work in “Saimir” (2004) and “The Rest of the Night” (2008) dealt with issues of immigration, “Black Souls” explores the experience of rooted Italians clinging to old customs while grasping at opportunities to grow. He presents an Italy where omerta, a code of silence about criminal activity, is still the law of the land, where women keep quiet unless they’re in their own sphere and where generations of men perpetuate a system of vengeance and violence. It’s an Italy with a stark urban-rural divide and seemingly few options for young people like Leo to escape their ancestrally dictated peasant lifestyles.
It’s no sexy shoot ‘em up film, but Munzi’s mafia drama is an elegant contribution to the genre. Though it takes its sweet time to develop, “Black Souls” rewards its viewers in the end with a spectacular payoff that sizzles long after the credits run.
“Black Souls” opens Friday at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.
Grace Lovio is a senior staff writer. Contact her at [email protected].