‘Black Souls’: Sublime family crime drama

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For Digital First Media

“Black Souls” (released under the name, “Anime Nere” in Italy) is profile of intrafamilal and interfamilial strife in the context of a contemporary crime drama.

We are accustomed to Italian crime films with a background in Sicily, as in the “Godfather” trilogy, or the Camorra-dominated region around Naples as in the much lauded 2008 film, “Gomorrah.”

By contrast, “Black Souls” is predominantly set in the Calabria section in the toe of the boot of Italy. Historically, the region has been the home base to the ‘Ndrangheta, an organized crime syndicate.

The small provincial hamlet of Africo Vecchio is in the Aspromonte mountains on Calabria’s Mediterranean coast. There, the three Carbone brothers grew up in an impoverished family. Their father had been a humble goatherd and farmer.

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Black Souls" at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5gUDIIe67Y

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Black Souls” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5gUDIIe67Y

Decades before, one of the Carbone family members had been murdered by a local ganglord, Barracas, for no apparent reason. Despite the passage of many years, tension persists between the two families.

Despite its intrinsic visual splendor, Africo Vecchio is now virtually abandoned. As an adult, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane) is content to remain in the village and follow in the family tradition of raising goats and running a farm. He lives with his wife, Antonia (Anna Ferruzzo), and remains assiduously detached from illicit criminal activities.

The two younger siblings, Luigi (Marco Leonardi) and baby brother, Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) prove more ambitious. They move north to Milan, where they start a construction company. However, in an early scene, it becomes apparent that it’s just a front for their drug smuggling business. Luigi is in Amsterdam to meet with new Spanish suppliers of cocaine. His finesse as a negotiator becomes readily apparent.

Back in Africo Vecchio, Lucianao is attempting to keep his 20-year old son, Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), away from the clutches of organized crime. Leo is at loose ends. He had dropped out of college, but is totally disinterested in a mundane modus vivendi, working alongside his father.

Ultimately, Luciano’s efforts prove futile. Leo heads to Milan, where he intends to join his uncle’s criminal enterprises. On the way out of town, he shoots up a bar that belongs to a man allied with the Barracas clan. It is an impulsive act that epitomizes what a hothead Leo is.

When Leo arrives in Milan, his uncles decide that they need to mollify the Barracas clan. They make a rare return to their ancestral home with their nephew and loyal capos by their sides. To facilitate the peace-making process, they invite Barracas and his cronies to an outside family feast. Will this gesture prove sufficient to allay the festering discord? Luciano deeply resents the way that his brothers have immersed him in their criminal affairs.

The film is based on a fact-based novel by Gioacchino Criaco.  Francesco Munzi has done an exceptional job at co-writing the screenplay and directing, “Black Souls.” He offers a carefully observed study of organized crime, but resists the tendency to glamorize it.  The film excels in its ethnographic fascination with the traditional life in a small Calabrian village. This is starkly contrasted with the lure of a post-modernist sophistication in Milan.

“Black Souls” is a superbly crafted film. The widescreen color cinematography by long-time Munzi lensman, Vladan Radovic, is stunning. His recurrent use of shadows contribute to the film’s dark sense of foreboding. Although the score by Giuliano Taviani is relatively spare, it is a worthy addition to the film.

“Black Souls” was nominated to compete for the Golden Lion at the 71st Venice International Film Festival. It did not snare the Golden Lion, which went to the Swedish dramedy, “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.” However, Munzi won the Pasinetti Award for Best Film, the Carlo Mazavurati Quality Screen Award, and the Akai Award for Best Direction. Producer, Luigi Musini, won the Mimmo Rotella Foundation Award.

“Black Souls” is a sublime family crime drama. It evocatively examines the seemingly inescapable role that destiny plays in our fates.

***1/2 No MPAA rating (violence, drugs, profanity, smoking) 103 minutes. In Italian with English subtitles

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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