Those spoiled by the violence in such mobster movies as “The Godfather” (1972) and “Goodfellas” (1990) might get impatient with the slow start of Francesco Munzi’s tale about beleaguered members of the ’Ndrangheta, the little known syndicate from Calabria that has overtaken the Cosa Nostra and Mafia in corruptive criminality. In the first half of “Black Souls” the casualties amount to a couple of sheep, a goat, and the window of a seedy bar.
Instead, Munzi takes his time establishing the not very interesting or original dynamics of the Carbone family, and the ponderous result resembles more a melodrama about tradition, class, and family like Luchino Visconti’s “Rocco and His Brothers” (1960) than a graphic, sordid exposé like Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah” (2008). Related with stolid majesty, with long shots of brooding landscapes and close-ups of opaque faces, the film provides poor preparation for the subversion of genre conventions to follow.
Until then, “Black Souls” seems like it’s trying to subvert those conventions by putting them to sleep. The Carbones are like the Corleones in suspended animation. Like their counterpart in “The Godfather,” the family consists of three brothers, each with different attitudes to the family business. Luigi (Marco Leonardi, who is a disturbing amalgam of Marcello Mastroianni and Benito Mussolini) takes on the role of the reckless alpha-male Sonny; bespectacled, bourgeois Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta), with his white-bread wife, Valeria (Barbora Bobulova), combines the calculating Michael with the voice-of-reason Tom Hagen; and the eldest brother, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), who disdains the others’ criminality and prefers to herd goats back in their hometown of Africo, in Calabria, is a savvier, though no less feckless, version of Fredo.
Unsurprisingly, Luciano’s 20-year-old son, Leo (a blank-faced Giuseppe Fumo), is sick of the goats and the old man’s fussy scruples and idolizes his Uncle Luigi, with his high life up north in Milan. He also resents Luciano’s resistance to tribal vendettas. In response to an insult to the family honor, and in an attempt to gain Luigi’s approval, Leo acts indiscreetly and sets off a long-dormant tribal war.
Finally. After such a stodgy build-up, however, this payoff does not deliver much in the way of catharsis or resolution. Perhaps intentionally. Though the content of the typical mob movie can shock with its brutality and perversity, the tragic arc ultimately reinforces traditional values while allowing a vicarious indulgence in the taboo. Here those expectations are first frustrated and then reversed, demonstrating that in such a system of twisted values the supposed virtues of loyalty and honor are pernicious, and treachery is the only genuine heroism.