Seldom does the gangster genre produce many unique masterpieces. Increasingly nowadays – and blockbuster LEGEND is testament to this – the louder the gun bang and the more heads exploding the better, with all investments in story going out the window in favour of the spectacle of macho violence. The mafia-gangster subgenre gets the same treatment, but arguably to an even greater degree as the key tropes that THE GODFATHER TRILOGY set out so well for us are treated as little more than a given in the background (what a disappointing legacy for one of the greatest trilogies of all time). But the key to reinvigorating a genre that’s seen more spin-offs than Strictly Come Dancing is to remember what was so great about it in the first place. BLACK SOULS will be like a pure heroin hit to mafia film fans who’ve been living off sub-standard stuff for decades.
BLACK SOULS takes all the core elements of the mafia premise we know so well – the Don figure, the legacy of the father, the sacrilege of disrespecting one’s family and, above all, male pride – and weaves them inextricably into the story where they are shown to be holy and consequential. Although director Francesco Munzi’s film, set in the hypnotic rolling hills of Southern Italy’s Calabria, does not charge into unknown territory in terms of storyline, which is kept sparse and on well-trodden ground, the focus is firmly on putting the fear back into violence – to an uncompromising end.
From the Ndrangheta mafia syndicate in Calabria, two brothers Luigi (Marco Leonardi) and Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) run the drug-based family business shuffling cocaine in Milan. However eldest brother Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane, and terrific) causes tension within the family as he refuses to partake in such dealings, making his humble living instead in the mountains herding goats. When Luciano’s son, Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), leaves to join his uncles’ ranks with a reckless mind that get the attention of a rival family gang, past traumas are unearthed and thoughts of revenge that have stayed buried for so long begin to rise to the surface.
Based on a true story by Gioacchino Criaco and shot mostly on location in Africo, BLACK SOULS looks and feels so authentic. But the biggest contributing factor to this feeling are the performances, which toe the ever-so fine line between controlled respect in the presence of threatening ‘others’ and uncontainable emotion in the face of tragedy. Little more than agentless supports, the female characters (mainly wives Antonia and Valeria played by Barbara Bobulova and Anna Ferruzzo respectively and mother Rosa played by Aurora Quattrocchi) provide a familial sense of homeliness, containing so much pain behind strong, expressive eyes in impeccably executed scenes of mourning. In the crumpled face of the mother of these three men, so different in personality and yet all bound together by their father’s legacy, we see the reality of their lives: unglamorous and hollow.
The moments of violence are always unexpected and shocking, more thriller worthy than the trigger-happy scenes we are used to seeing in this type of film, and all the more effective for their scarcity. What we fear in BLACK SOULS is not the merciless mafia boss figure but the terminal danger of revenge and male pride, spreading like the plague through the hills, which captures the essence of the gangster story at its heart.
The Final Word: BLACK SOULS is everything BLACK MASS wanted to be but wasn’t: subtle, stylish and threatening even at the quietest of moments.
BLACK SOULS is released in cinemas across the UK tomorrow (Friday 30th October)