The gangster movie (and, with all due respect to Tony Soprano: television series) is as indelible an American art form as the blues, an Andy Warhol print of Elvis Presley or the kind of football you play with your hands. We see something of ourselves, our American character, in these charming criminals: their ruthlessness in pursuing total domination in whatever domain they so choose; their love of unbreakable ethical codes and the way they don’t see murder or extortion as anathema to such ways of life; their emphasis on the centrality of family and their fierce, secretly fearful tribalism. Gangster films show us to us, while simultaneously allowing us to cluck our tongues in moral superiority when the credits roll.
These are, of course, stories of immigrants—foundational to America’s conception of itself. Implicitly, when an Italian gangster film like Francesco Munzi’s Anime nere (Black Souls) screens in the U.S., it offers its audience an opportunity to see these stories of organized crime in their original element, as distinct from the mafia’s—or in this case, the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta’s—American brand. Munzi’s slow-burning, emotionally claustrophobic film strips the charm away from these hard-edged men, leaving behind skeletal creatures much more Sartre than Goodfellas.
Luigi (Marco Leonardi) is our familiar Mafioso: cocksure, always smirking, gliding through his world with the confidence of a man who knows he’s won respect after a lifetime of trying. The film opens with Luigi doing some international business in Amsterdam with a group of Spaniards, but the setting is a feint, designed to imply Luigi’s distance from his hometown of Africo. His brothers, Rocco (Peppino Mazzotto) and Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), also still live there, but there’s a fissure in the family’s bond: Rocco works with Luigi in the ’Ndrangheta, but Luciano has moved on, returning to life as a shepherd. (Munzi slyly alludes to this dynamic in a scene before we earnestly meet Luciano, wherein Luigi steals and then butchers a family’s goats without a care for his neighbors’ livelihood.) Luciano, who has put his criminal past behind him and replaced it with religion, desperately wants to keep his son, Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), from following in his uncles’ sordid footsteps. Leo, of course, has other plans.
Munzi’s meticulous scene-setting—Africo seems dropped from a director’s dream, all crumbling stone, sharp cliffs and steep poverty—allows tension to build gradually, the camera idling on darkly lit interiors and contrasting these spaces with the decaying beauty of similarly long exterior shots of the village. Scenes play out slowly, the dialogue terse and clipped. The audience knows violence will eventually explode, and it’s to Munzi’s great credit that, when it does, it still brings with it heavy, humid dread. Ferracane’s Luciano smolders in graceful dissolution, his composure unwinding in perfect time as a series of murders puts to the test his loyalty to his brothers and his ability to protect his son.
Munzi sets up the questions gangster films always ask: What good is vengeance? What does real vindication look like? Can we blame economically disadvantaged people for resorting to violence as a means to escape their fates? Are familial bonds really the most important of human connections? He lets these questions linger, as he knows they will for audiences (Italian and American, alike) steeped in the conventions of the gangster genre, right until the film’s genuinely shocking final moments. In the end, Munzi suggests, the Old World, so long ravaged by violence of its own creation, may have a better chance at facing its true enemies than the New World, still so enamored with the flash and shine of the gun.
Director: Francesco Munzi
Writers: Francesco Munzi, Fabrizio Ruggirello, Maurizio Braucci; based on the novel by Gioacchino Criacco
Starring: Marco Leonardi, Peppino Mazzotta, Fabrizio Ferracane, Barbora Bobulova, Anna Ferruzzo, Giuseppe Fumo
Release Date: April 10, 2015
Corey Beasley writes for Cokemachineglow, The Village Voice, Pop Matters and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter. He lives in Brooklyn, and is the one with the beard and glasses.