Black Souls – Film Review

High drama is negated by glacial pace in this not quite thrilling Italian mafia film

Now, hold on because this all gets complicated. Three Italian brothers have grown up with crime in their DNA, part of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia in Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot. Now middle-aged, two of them (Marco Leonardi and Peppino Mazzotta) have left their remote town and are running a successful drug operation from Milan. Their elder brother, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), has turned his back on their felonious lifestyle and instead keeps goats on a mountain where the weather is always symbolically gloomy. Yet blood will out, and Luciano’s 20-year-old son (Giuseppe Fumo) yearns to get in on the glamour of the family business, so much so that he ignites a childish feud with another criminal tribe and drags his entire family into a fight for respect that reawakens old rivalries and can only end badly.

Good mafia dramas are complex things, having to clearly show the connections in sprawling family trees, explaining who hates who and why, without losing the audience in a tangle of names and grudges. In its earlier scenes Black Souls can be difficult to follow, darting around Europe to introduce everyone without always making it clear how one person relates to the next. Slowly and deliberately, though, director/co-writer Francesco Munzi pulls everyone back to their little hometown, which isn’t big enough to hold so much anger and will inevitably explode.

In plot, Black Souls – which won awards at last year’s Venice Film Festival – is rich, and patience is rewarded, but it has some peculiar pacing issues. Munzi is an unhurried director, which isn’t in itself a criticism; a slow pace can give you time to absorb the smaller details. But he lingers for a frustratingly long time on wordless reaction shots or strings together scenes that make the same point in minutely different ways. It has the effect not of deepening your investment in the story but slowing the momentum to a glacial speed, leaving the film to catch up with the audience rather than the other way round. All the elements of a superb crime drama are here, and the surprise ending will make you glad you stuck with it, but a judicious edit could have improved it significantly.