Mafia movies have changed since Francis Ford Coppola’s Hollywood-epic “Godfather” trilogy. Matteo Garrone’s brilliant 2008 gangster picture “Gomorrah” was a take-no-prisoners look at how the mob in southern Italy abuses and enslaves its citizens, corrupts its culture, and poaches its natural resources. Now Francesco Munzi is taking a more personal approach, via Gioacchino Criaco’s novel about a decades-old rift reopened between rival “'Ndrangheta" mafia families in Calabria. As the world’s most influential criminal organization and one of its most lucrative (it brings in $72 billion annually) the 'Ndrangheta mafia far outweighs the more widely known Sicilian "Cosa Nostra" Mafia that has folded into the 'Ndrangheta.
The Barracas and Carbone families are connected by the murder of a Carbone padrone by the Barracas several generations earlier in the bucolic region of Africo Vecchio. Teenager Leo Carbone (Giuseppe Fumo) chafes under the yoke of sheepherder father Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane); he longs to join the family business with his Uncle Luigi (Marco Leonardi) in Milan. Leo sews a few wild oats by shooting up a local bar before leaving for Milan to seal his plan, hopefully with Luigi’s blessings. Little does the tough-minded Leo realize the imminent consequences that his thoughtless actions against the local club will have on his family’s relations with the Barracas clan. Leo’s ember of hostility will soon engulf his family.
The brilliance of “Black Souls” lies in its minimalist approach to elucidate the mafia mindset of intimidation and long-held grudges. This seemingly low-key picture provides a historic context of the dichotomy between the mafia’s past of traditional values and the sped-up expectations that the modern world demands. As much as Leo’s sensible father attempts to distance himself from the violence of his family members, he is just as apt to reach for a gun when circumstances seem to demand it.
Francesco Munzi exerts a graceful restraint in the way he constructs the story (Munzi was a co-screenwriter), and how he frames the Italian landscape with a sense of dramatic vérité to reflect the impoverishment of the characters’ backgrounds. Munzi exemplifies the influence of the late Francesco Rosi, whose commanding use of Italian terrain contributed to the lasting effect of such majestic films as “Salvatore Giuliano.” The scrupulous Munzi also matches Rosi’s talent for casting naturalistic actors whose subtle performances leave indelible impressions that resonate with hostile silence. “Black Souls” hurts.
Not Rated. 103 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)