There is little time for foreplay in “Burning Hearts,” which begins with a shotgun blast and never gets any more subtle from there. The barrage of bullets fired takes out the entire Malatesta family in the rural Gargano Promentory, farmland that has been carved up between three families including the Mantonaris and the Camporeales, who are to blame for the bloodshed, though director Pippo Mezzapesa leaves vague why they seized the moment to kill them all. However, they were unaware that the youngest member of the family, a prepubescent boy named Michele was busy tending to the pigs, and as the film cuts to 2004, retaining the monochrome appearance of the flashback suggesting little has changed in the region, Michele has become a boss of his own, unbothered on the farm now when he wants to crank up the radio and dance with his wife.
Peace is short-lived, however, in the mob drama where no bullet is left in the chamber for long. Michele (played in adulthood by Tommaso Ragno) may have the region largely under his thumb these days, but has little handle on his son Andrea (Francesco Patanè), who literally does his bidding at an auction house mere moments into the film, but subsequently sneaks off to seduce Marilena (Elodie, making a striking acting debut), the comely brunette that catches everyone’s eye when she puts down a 100,000 euros for the Madonna painting Michele wants. Soon, they are having epic sex in the local salt mines – a surreal mix of the majestic and the vulgar that is bound to win one over or not, and not being above lingering on Marilena as she wriggles back into her jeans, it shouldn’t surprise that she’s positioned as the devil’s candy, a mistress of the Camporeales’ boss Santo that Andrea would be wise to stay away from.
The mechanics of “Burning Hearts” may be a little familiar, but the pastoral setting creates some intriguing wrinkles when Andrea’s trespass is discovered and Michele has to offer 100,000 euros and 50 cows to Santo as compensation, an amount that’s accepted by the Camporeales yet triggers a whole new round of violence where Andrea, who appears like he’s never fired a gun, suddenly has to take up arms. No one in the farming community is concerned too much with money, but rather scores settled and a sense of ownership as much over people as property and Andrea, played as a weakling by Patanè until he’s shown to like the taste of blood, is drawn into a battle between his mother (Lidia Vitale) who insists that he takes out every member of their rival family, and Marilena, who remains committed to him, but pleads for him to spare at least a few. Akin to if Fredo were given Michael Corelone’s arc in “The Godfather” from innocent to hardened criminal, the idea that Andrea is ultimately doing all this to preside over a kingdom made up of haystacks and horse manure sets the film apart from others in the genre.
In a film where characters are quite skilled at ambushing one another, narrative surprises reside in how certain inevitabilities play out and when Mezzapesa doesn’t shy away from Marilena’s sex appeal early on, he leans into primal appeals throughout with tough talk and well-staged mayhem. Revenge may be seen as futile business in “Burning Hearts,” but it does entertain, keeping its characters and audience alike consumed with all that’s going on.
“Burning Hearts” will screen again at the Venice Film Festival on September 5th at 3 pm at the PalaBiennale.