It’s nigh-on impossible to make a film about the Mafia without inadvertently celebrating their sordid lifestyle: the cars, the suits, the family loyalty, the generations-long vendettas, the spaghetti, the meatballs. But like ‘Gomorrah’ before it, Italian drama ‘Black Souls’ sets out to strip away any hint of glamour: as its title bluntly suggests, these are selfish, lonely people corrupted by violence, living a meaningless existence bound by tired traditions and medieval machismo.
In a clear echo of ‘The Godfather’, the story centres on three brothers living in and around Milan: Luigi (Marco Leonardi) has expanded his dead father’s criminal practice and is now a major drugs smuggler, Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) acts as his conscientious second-in-command while Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane) has stayed behind to tend the family goat farm, and is horrified to see his own son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo) getting mixed up in petty crime. When Leo’s antics upset the local crimelord, Luigi steps in, with inevitably gruesome consequences.
This familiar, fable-like set-up gives director Francesco Munzi and his co-screenwriters room to upend expectations, particularly in the final stages. But it also allows them to examine aspects of Mafia life that other films take for granted: the bizarre Catholic rituals, the adolescent posturing, the empty routines. It’s a dour, at times glacial film that perhaps takes itself just a little too seriously, but it’s also grimly convincing and, in a remarkable final scene, shockingly effective.