A group of elderly Italian hunters gather in a pub to tell each other folktales at the beginning of Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis’ cinematic fable. “This is the story of Luciano. It’s a dark tale,” one of them announces forebodingly. So you can’t say the film hasn’t given you fair warning.
The debut feature from the heretofore documentary filmmakers (Belva Nera, Il Solengo), The Tale of King Crab strains mightily for a poetic quality that it never quite achieves. Divided into two stylistically diverse chapters, the film doesn’t evoke primitive folktales so much as it does similarly ambitious but more accomplished efforts by the likes of Herzog, Pasolini and Kurosawa, among many others. Recently screened at the New York Film Festival, it is due to be released theatrically by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
The Tale of King Crab
Stylistically ambitious, narratively wanting.
The first chapter, “The Saint Orsio’s Misdeed,” introduces us to the central character, Luciano (Gabrielle Silli), a notorious drunken layabout living in a remote Italian village during the 19th century. Luciano — sporting the sort of lavishly unkempt beard that takes years of devoted neglect to grow — gets into trouble when he vehemently objects to the arbitrary decision by the ruling prince (Enzo Cucchi) to lock the gate to a passageway through which shepherds transport their sheep. Luciano has a personal interest in the matter: He’s in love with Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu, The Wonders), the daughter of a shepherd (Severino Sperandio) who doesn’t take kindly to the idea of him as a potential son-in-law.
When Luciano breaks through the locked doors, it sets off a violent chain of events that results in tragedy and forces him to flee the country. Landing in the supremely arid environs of Tierra del Fuego (hence the second chapter’s provocative title, “The Asshole of the World,” at which Argentines may take offense), he impersonates a priest and, accompanied by a ragged group of untrustworthy sailors, sets off in search of a fabled Spanish treasure located in a far-off lagoon that apparently can be found only with the help of a giant crab kept in a tub of water. As you might have guessed from the warning delivered early in the film, it doesn’t work out well.
The filmmakers frequently remind us of their narrative construct by cutting back to the elderly storytellers, who at one point debate the characters’ actions and motivations, they also use such stylistic devices as rendering some of the plot developments in song. The net effect, rather than being transporting, instead further removes us from the story, which, as thin as it is, would benefit from far fewer distractions. Whatever social commentary is being attempted via the allegorical storyline becomes obscured by the labored melange of magical realism, fairy tale and spaghetti Western tropes.
The film is certainly visually stunning, with Simone D’Arcangelo’s cinematography vividly capturing the lush Italian countryside and the barren Patagonian landscape that provide the very different settings for the two chapters. It also benefits greatly from the deeply committed, highly physical performance by Silli, a visual artist and nonactor making his screen debut. Boasting the most expressive set of Italian eyes since Giancarlo Giannini, he makes us fully believe in his character’s emotional extremes, if not the fantastical narrative framing them.