‘Black Souls’

An em­pha­sis on char­ac­ter, set­ting pays off in this top-notch crime film set in Italy’s Cal­abria re­gion.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth.tu­ran@la­times.com

A mood­ily ef­fec­tive fam­ily crime drama set in Italy turns tragic.

A bleak tragedy or­ches­trated in a Mafia key, “Black Souls” (“Anime Nere” in Ital­ian) is brood­ingly ef­fec­tive as a crime drama be­cause it’s driven by fam­ily dy­nam­ics as much as the me­chan­ics of trans­gres­sion.

Di­rected and co-writ­ten by Francesco Munzi, “Black Souls” is set not in the Si­cily of the “God­fa­ther” saga or even the Camorra-run ar­eas sur­round­ing Naples fea­tured in 2008’s ex­cel­lent “Go­mor­rah.”

Rather, as pho­tographed with a cool, wide-screen beauty by Vladan Radovic, this Ital­ian saga takes place in re­mote Cal­abria, in the tiny moun­tain­ous town of Africo, where yet an­other crim­i­nal syn­di­cate, the ’Ndrangheta, ex­erts pow­er­ful con­trol.

Be­fore we get to Cal­abria, how­ever, “Black Souls” opens in Am­s­ter­dam, where Luigi (Marco Leonardi), look­ing im­pec­ca­bly crim­i­nal in black turtle­neck and match­ing leather jacket, has a get-ac­quainted meet­ing with his new Span­ish part­ner in the smug­gling and sale of co­caine.

Th­ese sec­tions of the film es­tab­lish “Black Soul’s” in­volv­ing, al­most neo-doc­u­men­tary style, the de­ter­mi­na­tion to han­dle ev­ery­thing in a lu­cid, mat­ter-of-fact man­ner.

The en­er­getic Luigi is part­ners in the drug busi­ness with his qui­eter brother Rocco (Pep­pino Maz­zotta). Both men now live in hy­per­mod­ern Mi­lan (Rocco even has a wife and daugh­ter), but cir­cum­stances will draw them back to their al­most primeval an­ces­tral home.

Those cir­cum­stances in­volve their dour third brother, Lu­ciano (Fabrizio Fer­ra­cane), who, want­ing noth­ing to do with the fam­ily’s crim­i­nal busi­ness, has stayed in Africo and re­mained a goat farmer like his fa­ther.

How­ever, Lu­ciano’s hot­headed, tem­pes­tu­ous 20year-old son, Leo (Cal­abrian new­comer Giuseppe Furno), is far from con­tent with a goat herder’s life. He burns to join his un­cles in Mi­lan and live the high life of his dreams.

In a fi­nal act of ado­les­cent bravado be­fore he leaves, Leo shoots up a bar that just hap­pens to be­long to a ri­val crim­i­nal fac­tion. Those folks, as it turns out, were re­spon­si­ble for the death of the broth­ers’ fa­ther, Leo’s grand­fa­ther. In towns like this, as Wil­liam Faulkner fa­mously noted, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The un­cles Luigi and Rocco re­al­ize what nephew Leo does not, that his thought­less act could have se­ri­ous reper­cus­sions. Drawn back to Africo against their will, and their bet­ter judg­ment, the broth­ers go to work mending fences.

One of “Black Souls’ ” most in­volv­ing as­pects is its al­most ethno­graphic in­ter­est in the rit­u­als and cus­toms of this land that time for­got. The re­spect paid to the broth­ers’ an­cient mother, the ex­pen­sive gifts given to other rel­a­tives, the singing of lo­cal songs, all give us a sense of how the so­cial or­der works in a world where the tini­est slight can be taken as a po­ten­tially fa­tal lack of re­spect.

The same goes for the elab­o­rate, al­most courtship­type, ap­proach the broth­ers make to yet an­other crim­i­nal fam­ily, one that could hold the bal­ance of power should the sit­u­a­tion worsen.

The act­ing in “Black Souls” is strong across the board, and that the ac­tors are not well-known in this coun­try only height­ens the film’s strong sense of verisimil­i­tude.

Wor­thy of spe­cial note in this male-dom­i­nated film is Barbora Bob­ulova, who plays Rocco’s wife, Va­le­ria, an ur­ban so­phis­ti­cate who of­ten feels left out be­cause she doesn’t speak the lo­cal di­alect her hus­band and his sib­lings fa­vor.

Once the stage is set and the more in­tense plot el­e­ments of “Black Souls” kick in, the film’s em­pha­sis on char­ac­ter and set­ting pays off, just as the muted na­ture of the sto­ry­telling adds to its con­sid­er­able power. As in clas­sic tragedy, the po­tent end­ing here is no less ef­fec­tive be­cause the events lead­ing up to it feel in­creas­ingly in­escapable.

Vitagraph Films

“BLACK SOULS” takes an al­most ethno­graphic in­ter­est in the rit­u­als and cus­toms in re­mote Cal­abria.

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