Tuesday 9 June 2015

Sydney Film Festival (27) - Max Berghouse reviews Black Souls

Black Souls, (Francesco Munzi, Italy 2014) has attracted in the main very positive reviews especially from European critics. In this review there will be no need for spoiler alerts although practically every review, all of which are readily available on the net, gives more than sufficient details of the plot.

In the very first scene, two brothers Luigi and Rocco, second and third sons of a "shepherd" from the Calabrian town of Africo negotiate the purchase of a load of cocaine from a Latin American drug lord. The price proposed is 50% down and 50%....., which is higher, the brothers assert than dealing with their previous contact. But he is no longer around indicates the new Latin American cartel boss and we can be in little doubt that the previous boss has been "rubbed out", an expression I have remembered from 1930' s Warner Brothers gangster movies. Although Rocco is subsequently portrayed as the more cerebral of the two brothers, it is Luigi who is able to come to terms with this new arrangement. But as viewers we are given a clear intimation of what is to follow: death.

It is almost trite to suggest that the propensity to violence against others invites violence in return and almost as trite to acknowledge that violence projected by a particular unit, say family, can turn on itself, like the tarantula.

Both these aspects are very efficiently, if not particularly chillingly (at least to me) played out in  Africo, high in the mountains. No bright sunny southern Italian landscape this. Dark, gloomy, and rainy and photographed, both as to internal and external shots as to leach out pretty much all colour possible. It is a very internal world,  played out in the townhouse of the family and their farm up in the mountains. Neighbours appear to be scarce, only "associates" who are again more or less linked to crime.

Calabria is the province of Italy with the strongest Greek origins and this is recognised for example in the complex regional dialect, which is occasionally used and referred to as being not "Italian". Perhaps this is a sub textual reason for a number of critics praising the film for its Greek tragedy like intensity. Unfortunately I could not find this. The film is certainly tragic in its denouement, but it misses out on the inevitability which one associates with real tragedy.

One aspect generally missed  in reviews is the way in which a gangster family operates as a business: praising the strength of enemies as well as friends, loyalty and the capacity for treachery. Which family is on the rise in which on the decline? This is handled very subtly and I thought pretty much the most impressive feature of the film. Maybe my sense of values is askew!

The elder brother, Luciano has remained home to tend the family property and remains aloof from its criminal activities. That said he seemed to derive some financial support from his more freewheeling brothers. The township seems to have slipped from the family's direct control to another family of gangsters which usurped power by previously killing the three sons' father. A chance and rash action by Luciano's son against one of the other family’s protected agents, results in a flare up of violence when the two brothers Luigi and Rocco return to the town. That it is the other family which initiates violence whereas previously there has been a wary piece, is not doubted by the family of the three sons, but can only be guessed at by us. Like most of us, gangsters have cooperate in a fog of uncertainty.

None of the characters is even remotely sympathetic, especially Luciano's son who is a violent, lazy and uneducated layabout. Even the demure widowed mother is sullied by the implication that she is aware where the family's money really comes from.

That said, this is an extremely efficient and professional production of a gangster film, the like of which we have all seen many many times before. Anyone who considers that the production is simply a front for a deep meditation on the meaning of life, or whatever it is that constitutes an art film, is in my view mistaken. But it is what it is. The director uses a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors and achieves uniformly good results.

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