Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Italian Mafia sans any glamorization in Francesco Munzi's fine film, BLACK SOULS

"What a disgusting crew." That was my first note taken as I watched the new Mafia movie, BLACK SOULS, from director/co-writer Francesco Munzi. But why not? This is, after all, a Mafia movie made by Italians -- and not in the mainstream, oh-how-cute! mode of the recent and sort-of black-comic failure, The Mafia Kills Only in Summer. No. This film is about as grim and real as you could ask for. Except, of course, you probably won't. Because Americans demand their Mafia movies and TV shows be entertaining above all, and, yes, glamorous and fun. And don't tell me that The Godfather and, more recently, The Sopranos were not every bit of that, despite James Gandolfini's and the rest of the cast's remarkable performances in the latter. American Mafia movies somehow make "heroes" of their boys; Italians know them for the worthless pieces of walking/barely-talking shit that they are.

Since Gomorrah, there has not been a Mafia movie I've seen to equal the dark and pitiful lives on view in Black Souls. Filmmaker Munzi, shown at left, understands how the lives touched by these people are made infinitely worse by that fingering. This includes the families -- immediate and extended -- of the clan, as well as those who serve and service them. The picture painted here is dank and dismal but Munzi sure knows how to make it an interesting one, full of incident and development -- even as those incidents move from worse to worst.

Munzi is also a rigorous filmmaker in his insistence that we understand how things get done, Mafia style. Consequently we get a good dose of custom and tradition, including song and dance, along with the meetings, match-makings, killings and betrayals. The area (shown above and below) in which much of the film was shot may remind you of Le Quattro Volte (oh, those goats!), and there is even a scene in which a character combines ashes in water and drinks the glass up.

As awful as life is here, the reins of power keep changing, moving, so that neither we nor the characters can ever be quite certain if that power remains intact. What we come to understand, more fully than is usual in films of this genre, is how even those family members on the periphery are still, finally and totally, sucked into to the muck. There is no escape.

Community -- for this, antisocial as it may be, is exactly what we have here -- has rarely taken on such darkness. And interestingly enough, not even the women can bond in this hell. Instead, we see how, from generation to generation, this ugliness is simply passed onward.

"Did you give a shit about any of these people?" my spouse asked as the end credits rolled. Sure, I hated them -- not equally, but to some degree all of them -- the planners, the killers and the enablers. But I also understood them, and this is the key to Black Souls' great success. It allows you to comprehend so much about these people who have utterly broken the social contract and sold out their humanity in the process.

They may be scum, but we come to understand every last character: who they are and why they do what they do -- from shooting up the facade of a local store to murder, dog- and calf-killing and betrayal of one's best friend. Munzi's creation is no small achievement, and Black Souls is one hell of a fine film -- without a trace of glamorization to be found.

In the cast are some bigger names (Marco Leonardi, above, and Barbora Bobulova, at left, three photos above), and others you'll swear were picked off the dirt path of some mountain village. No matter, they all work together to form an utterly authentic ensemble.

The movie -- via Vitagraph Films and running a just-right 103 minutes -- opens this Friday, April 10, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and City Cinemas 123; in Los Angeles, look for it April 24 at the Landmark NuArt. In the weeks to come, it will open in another 17 cities across the country. You can see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, by clicking here.

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