Dark Souls (Review)


Dark Souls (Anime Nere)

Based on the book by Gioacchino Criaco, screenplay written and directed by Francesco Munzi.

A brief summary of the plot could be this; Leo, having freshly entered his adult years, is fed up working for his Dad on the family goat farm in the Calabrian mountains. Against his father’s wishes, he decides to go to Milan and join his uncles’ little crime empire. But things go horribly wrong when they return to the goat farm to renew alliances with other local crime families.

Or, it could be this; Luigi, the head of a small crime family, takes his nephew under his wing and recruits him into his drug running empire. But on returning to the family home in the countryside to take care of local matters, an old dispute catches up with Luigi.

Of course, it could also be this; Rocco has to take over the family drug running empire after his brother is taken out of the picture. With an older brother who wants nothing to do with the business, and an overly keen and uncontrollable nephew, it becomes very difficult for Rocco to know who he can rely on.

Then again, it might be this; Luciano, a goat farmer in the Italian mountains, struggles to keep his family united when his criminal brothers come up from the city to visit. One horrifying event triggers another and Luciano’s world begins to crumble around him.

And therein lies the problem. Black Souls has no idea what story it wants to tell, so it tells them all. Everyone feels like a main character. Every story arc feels like it’s fighting to be the backbone. And in the end, you feel really unsure about what or who you were supposed to be watching.

Shot partly in Milan, but mostly in the old Calabrian village of Africo, this film had the chance to show off two sides of the beauty of Italy. But, it didn’t. Milan seems grubby, bleak and incomplete. Isn’t it one of the fashion capitals of the world? I truly would have had no idea that we were in Italy at all from the pictures alone. Except the bit in Milan Central station, where it clearly says ‘Milano Centrale.’

As for the Calabrian countryside, it, by comparison, absolutely is grubby, bleak and incomplete. However, I can tell it’s beautiful. I can see that the seemingly derelict and near abandoned village of Africo is effortlessly picturesque. But that’s because I’m looking at the edges of the frame. I’m looking beyond where my eye is being drawn, and I’m doing that because what I’m being asked to look at isn’t all that interesting.

Yes, the tree is blowing in the wind. Great. I have that right outside my window! Show me the physical representation of abandonment! You reference it plenty enough in the script!

Now, it’s entirely possible that it was shot this way intentionally, purposefully ignoring the romanticism of the country. And I could buy that, because this film is a very un-romantic look at the life of an organised crime family…

It’s a slow film, too. I could have given up after 30 minutes. Nothing seemed to be happening. People travelled a lot. There are plenty unjustified staring contests in cars and gazing into the middle-distance while riding in a speedboat. But none of it really takes us anywhere.

Fortunately, it picks up around the hour mark. And this is where it get’s gritty.

You know what people say about crime, right? It doesn’t pay. Unless like you to be paid in misery and Greek-tragedy-esque drama. In which case, have at it! And this is precisely what our characters get. One event kicks of a bunch of drama between crime families, but more importantly, it brings the talk of revenge to the family table.

However, Munzi very bravely chooses to keep away from violence. Don’t get me wrong, violent stuff goes down. Oh, it goes DOWN! But we don’t see it. Or, rather, what we do see is fairly tame. Because it’s not about the blood and the guts, it’s about the shock of the act happening. There are three big events in the film, and they all come at you out of the blue. One of them, I suppose, becomes expected, but the others serve as dramatic deviations from what would otherwise be a standard, tried and tested crime drama.

Leo, the young upstart keen to be a someone in the family’s illegitimate business affairs, is played by first time actor Giuseppe Fumo. The performance is nothing to write home about. It really isn’t. People are praising whimper it a little too highly for my liking. But I mention it because he is an actual resident of the actual village of Africo, and was selected from hundreds of applicants. He really looks the part; strong, brooding, unflinching and hard to the bone. But the best performances, in my opinion, came from Luciano’s defiant Fabrizio Ferracane and Rocco’s charming and intelligent Peppino Mazzotta. And in saying that, I really wish the film had just focused on Luciano’s side of the story. Ferracane could have easily carried this film with the others as supporting roles. His eyes do most of the work, and the camera really let’s him go to town with that particular talent.

Mazzotta, on the other hand, just nestles right in to Rocco. A bad guy, technically, but a bad guy you would really be able to trust. He always has his manners around him and, even in the face of adversity, he keeps his cool and plays the long game. And plays by the rules.

A special mention must also be given to Grandma Rosa, played by Aurora Quattrocchi. Her role is small, but she delivers the great lesson of the film. Practicality over needless opulence.

Black Souls has been compared a lot to Gomorrah, the 2008 film from Matteo Garrone. Although Gomorrah certainly handled the different stories and perspectives within the film far better, the comparison is justified.

Yes, I know I said there was a lack of scenery, too many stories, poor pacing and the questionable performance from Fumo, but that doesn’t mean that Black Souls is without a certain charm.

When I think of mafia films, I think of Scarface, Casino, maybe even Donnie Brasco or The Departed. Full of intense drama and in-your-face action and violence. But there is, without a doubt, a place in cinema for the patient and thoughtful, violence-free crime family drama. There is a place for Black Souls. But it’s just not a place that I’ll be visiting too often…

Black Souls will be screening on Sat 21st (20.30) and Sun 22nd (15.15) at the GFT