Once you’ve seen one mafia film, you’ve seen them all, right? Based on the best-selling novel by Gioacchino Criaco, Anime Nere (Black Souls) premiered last night at the 71st Venice Film Festival as the first Italian film of the competition to be screened. And true to its name, the film is a visually and morally dark production centred on Italian organised crime. But despite the black leather jackets and old fashioned male-female divides Anime Nere has a few surprises up its sleeve.
As the cast take their seats in Venice after running the gauntlet of the red carpet photographers Francesco Munzi’s film opens at the opposite end of the end country in rural southern Reggio-Calabrian. Anime Nere follows 3 brothers, Luciano, Rocco and Luigi, born in the hilltop village of Aspromonte (literally rugged mountain) to a goatherder and his wife in the far south toe of the Italian peninsula.
Now in their 40s, the murder of their father years ago has fractured the family with each brother reacting differently. Each has his own separate life and family, coming together just for family celebrations. However, events in the near-derelict village of Aspromonte conspire to draw the brothers back together as their lives become entangled around the family farmhouse and old vendettas.
The film opens with a large drug deal between youngest brother Luigi, played smoothly by Marco Leonardi, and his supplier in Amsterdam. Disarmingly dimpled Luigi divvies up the cargo in Milan, distributing it to his various dealers. And although neither Luigi, nor his brothers are explicitly affiliated with the ‘Ndrangheta mafia which has famously infiltrated Calabrian life over the last few years, the ideas of vendetta and family blood are strong. And Luigi uses his business contacts to gather support against competitors.
Switch to the hilltop family farmhouse where eldest brother Luciano, played temperately by Fabrizio Ferracane, his wife Antonia (Anna Ferruzzo) and son Leo, live modest, apparently honest lives tending their goats and vines to produce cheese and wine. Devout Luciano firmly believes he can keep his family out of old conflicts and Luigi’s murky underworld business, but twenty-year-old dropout Leo, played by newcomer Giuseppe Fumo, has ambitions beyond the hilltop pastures. He’s set his sights on his uncle’s exciting lifestyle and expensive watches.
Middle brother Rocco, played confidently by Peppino Mazzotta, appears to have a clean life, miles north in fashion capital Milan with his wife Valeria (Barbora Bobulova) and young daughter. They are the height of middle class respectability, as Valeria teaches their daughter how to set the table silverware correctly for a dinner party, but Rocco’s hands aren’t as clean as he likes to pretend.
As events conspire to draw the 3 brothers back into local underworld vendettas director Francesco Munzi and his cinematographer Vladan Radovic use the Aspromonte National Park mountain range as a beautiful craggy backdrop to the dark goings on. And the sad decay, decline and dereliction of the village perched high in the hills grimly reflects the deterioration and descent of the family’s fortunes as they simultaneously wage war against and fall victim to the old evils of Aspromonte.
This isn’t an Italy that many will readily recognize or one that attracts many tourists but Francesco Munzi describes it as a voyage into the most stigmatized black hole in Italy, the black heart of the Calabrian mafia.
And it’s an assured, and welcome, screen departure for some of the actors too, especially Peppino Mazzotta who many will know better from his portrayal of the eternally decent law-abiding Inspector Giuseppe Fazio in Andrea Camileri’s Commissario Montalbano. Off-screen Mazzotta’s theatre work such as Radio Argo or last year’s La Torre D’Avorio (The Ivory Tower) is award-winning. Mazzotta’s choice of theatre subject matter, is often uncompromising and challenging including Greek tragedy or Nazi collaboration so his involvement in Anime Nere is unsurprising. Mazzotta, furthermore, is very publically proud to be Reggio-Calabria born and bred having previously set up a regional theatre company specifically to play in dialect.
What makes this film truly Reggio-Calabrian however, apart from the scenery, is the use of dialect by most of the cast throughout. Some words and phrases sound close enough to Italian to be understood but great swathes of the film are incomprehensible to anyone outside the region so Italian subtitles were provided at the premiere (not to mention the English subtitles for the rest of us!)
In fact Francesco Munzi even recruited locals to work on the film as carpenters, set builders and also minor characters to add a little more authenticity and the all important co-operation of locals to allow filming. Not only will this bring some well-needed attention to the needs of the region but it also generated employment in a region hard hit by the economic crisis.
I wish I could tell you that the surprise at the end of this mafia film was a happy ending. I can’t. The women have a lot to cry about and spend a large part of the film crowded around a coffin like an appropriately named murder of black crows, muttering into their rosaries. But I can tell you that this isn’t just another cliché mafia shoot ‘em up or cheap Gomorrah copy. The film is beautifully shot, subtly acted and moodily moving telling a tragic story of life in a forgotten corner of Italy. The rapturous 12 minutes of applause from the audience of the Sala Grande at the Venice Film Festival tonight was well deserved so with a bit of luck you’ll be seeing more of Francesco Munzi and his black souls. And hopefully the Leone D’Oro will be just the first step to much-deserved international recognition for a great Italian film.
Official website – http://www.mymovies.it/animenere/
Anime Nere is one of 20 films in competition for the Leone D’Oro award this year.
Anime Nere has also been selected to screen at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in the Contemporary World Cinema.
General release date – 18 September 2014 (Italy)
Anime Nere (Dark Souls) is the first book of a trilogy by Gioacchino Criaco, which together with Zefira and American Taste, retraces the hellish journeys of children in different situations.