There always seems to be a chill in the air in Calabria, the small village at the center of Francesco Munzi’s “Black Souls,” so crisply captured whether in the eternally grey outline of the clouds even on sunny days or the weathered skin of its residents, hardened by either backbreaking work that most do out in the open fields or the work of backbreaking that’s demanded behind closed doors as a clandestine stronghold of the mafia. It’s a duality that struck Munzi as almost gothic when he first arrived in town, inspired by the 2008 novel of the same name by Gioacchino Criaco.
“In this film, I liked to exaggerate the color contrasts, the shadows, the esoteric aspect of the mountain, and its characters out of time,” said Munzi, recently in an e-mail interview. “Some interiors are inspired by the paintings of Caravaggio.”
Munzi’s approach to the look of “Black Souls” goes a long way towards explaining why it’s so effective as a multi-tiered tale of a family drug dynasty on the verge of unraveling when a young man’s impetuous attack on a rival gang leads his father Leonardo (Fabrizio Ferracane) back into the business after he thought he had exited long ago to a quieter life tending to a goat farm, leaving it in the hands of his other brothers Luigi (Marco Leonardi) and Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta). While any fan of crime novels may suspect they’ve heard this same story a thousand times before, there is something distinctly different about “Black Souls,” which manages to work in the primal pleasures of watching criminal machinations while offering up even more compelling drama in its study of the dynamics of the family and the community it trains its lens on, anchored in a town that seems to be caught between the past and the future with no obvious way forward.
Munzi spent years in the region, located in the Southern part of Italy, before even a frame of film was shot, earning the trust of the locals and surrounding his central cast with actors from the area who were free to fine-tune their dialogue to make it more authentic. (Leonardi, who plays the bespeckled leader Luigi, also happened to be born in Calabria.) Such investment pays off as the writer/director is able to convey a story that cuts across multiple generations and the cycle of violence that has shaped both the people and place with skillful deliberation and a keen eye. Shortly before the film hits American theaters after a celebrated run on the international festival circuit, Munzi reflected through a translator on how he became interested in this story, insinuating himself into a community that predictably wasn’t exactly welcoming at first, and how the film draws on not just the changing nature of Calabria, but Italy as a whole.
What captivated you about the book this film is based on?
I was very impressed with the emotion that is the basis of the book and tried to bring it back in the film – a feeling of loss, of pain. The crime story here is told from the inside, and the look is neither romantic nor glamorous, but dramatic and tragic. Compared to the book, I felt free to change many things. I brought the story to the present day, [changed] the friends to brothers, and the children have become adults. I have, in a sense, continued the story told in the novel.
I’ve read you spent a lot of time in Calabria before filming – what did you actually get from being there that you may not have from the film?
I started this film as a documentary, trying to get to know the locals and some of the families who had a similar story to that of the film. I entered a world which I knew nothing about. This helped me in writing the script, to fill it with all the details with which the imagination could not have come up. I found, thanks to my research, exceptional locations, and non-professional actors to perform in dialect alongside the professionals. I think all of this has given an added value to the film.
The goats become such an important symbol in the film. How did that happen?
The goats represent the Aspromonte mountains, a sacred place for much of the population of southern Calabria and also for many criminal families of the area. They represent the link to the archaic culture of their ancestors, to paganism. It’s the Italy that seems to have disappeared, yet survives in the ashes of modernity.
There’s this generational shift in the film – a collision between the older, agricultural way of life and the more business-oriented culture of the city – that I wondered if it was something you actually see in reality that exists in Calabria, or perhaps across Italy, and whether that was key to your interest in making this film?
I believe that a film, in addition to telling a story that can excite the audience, can at the same time, tell something of our reality. Italy has changed so fast in the last 50 years and not always in harmony. This short circuit between the archaic and the modern, also inspired the style of the film, in its balance between a fairy tale and an hyperrealistic story. I think that this reflects the nature of the type of crime shown in the movie.
I’ve read the town was supportive because they knew the author Gioacchino Criaco – how much did he open doors for you and if you entered with some fear, once those doors were opened, were there areas where you feel you could push yourself to do things you didn’t think you could before filming?
I shot in a very small town called Africo, which was stigmatized by journalists and the law as the nerve center of the Calabrian Mafia. Just going into these houses, with the help of Criaco, I defeated many prejudices. I discovered that you cannot condemn an entire village. I met many different types of people, some of them were willing to help me make this film and to tell this difficult reality. I never used first and last names, nor was it my job to make an exposé. It was, however, just a fictional story in which I could say many truths. I never felt in danger, nor did I ever lose the distinction between what is good and what is bad.
Was there a particularly challenging day of filming?
It was arduous to earn the trust of the Africo’s people and to get to the first day of filming. Then everything was easy, and we had a collaboration and a passion that it’s usually difficult to find in the filming of a movie. For this population, this was the first time. Only when we returned to Milan, a modern city, we heard again the normal effort to make a film. In this sense, it was an awesome experience and I think an unrepeatable one.
What’s it been like to take this film around the world?
Exciting, especially discovering that you can set your story in a remote village that knows little about anybody outside of it, but when you talk about human feelings, family, and of the clash between good and evil, you get to talk to everyone. And it is true to the saying that everything is local can become global.
“Black Souls” opens on April 10th in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Cinemas 1, 2, 3. It will open in Los Angeles on April 24th at the Nuart and play throughout the country in the coming weeks. A full schedule of theaters and dates can be found here.