Here is a film that takes an abrupt left-turn in its last 75 seconds, with three brutal yet perversely compassionate slayings – an odd phrase, yet one that encapsulates the film’s serious-minded embrace of moral complexities. Indeed, until the final minute, the film seems to uphold or mildly distort genre tropes. The climax is, to trot out the old cliché, ‘explosive’ – but mainly in the sense that it seems to explode the familiar familial dynamics that underpin most Italian gangster films.
The plot is simple, and prioritises characterisation over narrative. What story there is unfolds chronologically, straightforwardly, and is easy to follow. Three Calabrian brothers are involved, to varying degrees, in gangsterism: robust Luigi, wary Rocco and weary Luciano. Their father, killed long before the film’s narrative timeline, makes an occasional appearance, but only in conversation or in pensive scenes where Luciano looks at old newspaper clippings. We watch the brothers make deals and spend time with family, all the while increasingly aware that their fraternal relationship, while profound, is crumbling. Luciano is involved in gangsterism only by reluctant proxy: his own son Leo is following in the footsteps of his uncle, Luciano’s brother Luigi, who is a mafia-esque heavy.
The brilliant twist is that Luciano is a shepherd, refusing to live in Milan with his brothers, preferring to tend to his livestock in the mountains. It is this peaceable man who kills the most people by the time the credits roll. This fact in itself is not special or surprising, but his role in climactic events plays out as a devastating inversion of the Michael Corleone trope. It is difficult to go into more detail without giving away key late-in-the-game plot points; suffice to say, his actions can be seen to function not only as a comment on the film’s narrative, but as a subtle critique of the Italian gangster genre.
Good gangsterism runs in the blood. Leo is the son of a shepherd, not of a gangster; he’s street-smart, but his instincts lack nuance and predictive nous, which, coupled with his volatility, set the family back further.
The beautiful widescreen cinematography by Vladan Radovic serves to make the characters seem a little isolated, surrounded by space. The family has become atomised: not only are they geographically separated, but their tendencies undercut one another’s. Luigi is keen to expand operations globally, cutting a deal with Spaniards in Amsterdam at the film’s opening, while Luciano refuses to buy more land even for his sheep, saying: “What would I do with half a mountain?”
Francesco Munzi’s Anime Nere is not a perfect movie. The film’s modest length – well short of two hours – is perhaps something of a setback, despite the choppy pace. There are also instances of heavy-handed foreshadowing that make much of the film fairly predictable. When one character jokes early on, “If not for you, I would have shot myself in the head!”, it’s fairly clear that at some point, he is going to get shot in the head.
Nonetheless, this is an effective and possibly even important film. It’s worth seeing for its last couple of minutes, and the remaining 104 minutes are still compelling: very well acted and fairly well scripted, with plenty of arrestingly choppy family tensions to keep things interesting. This isn’t virtuosic filmmaking, but it’s certainly solid.