Black Souls (2014)
Editor’s Note: Black Souls is currently playing in limited release.
Francesco Munzi’s Black Souls (Anime nere) is an unflinching tale of one family’s prolonged descent into Hell. Three brothers, all involved in the Calabrian crime syndicate known as the ‘Ndrangheta in various ways, clash in what at first seems to be a standard, if evocative, crime drama. Soon, however, we realized that the film’s swift navigation through a series of seemingly unrelated incidents, from stealing goats to organizing international drug deals, is peeling away layers of this family’s carefully cultivated image. The stereotypical veneer of tradition, professionalism and occasional benevolence slowly fades, leaving behind the reality of an insular clan made up of old-fashioned and stubborn people unwilling to consider any solution that doesn’t involve violence.
Black Souls is effortlessly authentic, so much so that, even when it starts to quote from The Godfather and other major mafia films of the last few decades …
Black Souls is effortlessly authentic, so much so that, even when it starts to quote from The Godfather and other major mafia films of the last few decades, we’re surprised by the turn of events. We know what it means in a film when women start shuttering their windows and kids scurry off the streets, but Black Souls is so firmly entrenched in reality that, when the inevitable happens, we’re shocked. The family is shocked, too, wholly (and, in some cases, deliberately) unaware that they’re clichés, that their ignorance means their futures are preordained, and woe betide the man who tries to walk a different path.
Opening with what promises to be the beginnings of a flashy, international crime drama focusing on Luigi (Marco Leonardi), Black Souls soon shifts to Luigi’s disaffected nephew Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), a teen who can’t wait to become part of his family’s business. His father Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), Luigi’s brother, has steadfastly refused to be involved in organized crime, instead working as a shepherd, just as their father had before a rival family murdered him over a small debt. Luciano wants desperately to believe that ranching is the family business, not drug running, but Leo has a violent streak that Luigi seems happy to encourage. The middle brother, Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta), has gone semi-legitimate, and insists Luigi take their young nephew back to his father’s ranch.
If at first it seems pretty cut and dried, soon enough we realize that the family lives and breathes a long and unspoken history of tragedies, sorrow, grudges and regret. But so too do the other crime families around them, and these collective pasts are forever colliding. The situation is so unstable that a comparatively innocuous event — Leo shooting out the window of an empty bar — turns into a wholesale bloodletting.
Black Souls shifts its focus several times, in part to navigate its sprawling plot, but also to allow us to feel the same kind of complexity and confusion this family must live with every day.
Black Souls shifts its focus several times, in part to navigate its sprawling plot, but also to allow us to feel the same kind of complexity and confusion this family must live with every day. Violence figures heavily, as attention necessarily shifts as members of the family are gunned down. Throughout, just on the periphery, is Rocco’s wife Valeria (Barbora Bobulova), a woman from the north of Italy and unaffiliated with any mafia family. While the other women are left behind to say the litanies and mourn the dead, Valeria questions the devotion of the men to crime, and to their matriarch Rosa (Aurora Quattrocchi), whose wails of grief seem to only increase the death toll.
Black Souls is a beautiful film, expertly lensed by Vladan Radovic, whose framing captures a simple beauty in both the gray and muddy rural exteriors and the polished, opulent interiors; it’s when those two worlds collide that Radovic’s visuals are at their best. A host of terrific performances anchor the complicated narrative structure, something that, perhaps ironically, the characters themselves don’t recognize as complicated at all. That ignorance is what makes Black Souls a modern-day Greek tragedy, one where the horrifying finale is as inevitable as it is heartbreaking.
Black Souls is a beautiful film, expertly lensed by Vladan Radovic, whose framing captures a simple beauty in both the gray and muddy rural exteriors and the polished, opulent interiors; it's when those two worlds collide that Radovic's visuals are at their best.