The Tale of King Crab


Originally published on Ink 19 on October 4, 2022

The Tale of King Crab
directed by Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis

For their first quasi-fictional feature, The Tale of King Crab (Re Granchio), directors Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis effectively draw structure from their documentarian roots and fuse it with Italian folklore to develop a cinematic language that invigorates and redefines the fairy tale for this generation.

This seemingly effortless ability to draw from Italian history and world cinema while expanding and contextualizing such inspirations for this era without overburdening narratives with references to recognizable archetypes, legends, and myths has, in fact, become a kind of a hallmark for this new generation of Italian filmmakers such as Pietro Marcello, Alice Rohrwacher, and Jonas Carpignano. And, like Carpignano’s Calabrian-set A Chiara (reviewed earlier this year), A Tale of King Crab is the final film of a geographical triptych that began in 2013 with Rigo de Righi and Zoppis’ short documentary, Belva Nera (Black Beast), which was followed by their feature-length doc, Il Solengo. Their triptych, however, is centered in the town of Vejano in the Tuscia province, and all three of their films’ narratives emanate from a group of the town’s elderly huntsmen regaling each other with lore by the fire of their lodge.

Fittingly, The Tale of King Crab opens with a shot of a glistening and placid body of water that is soon disrupted by a shirtless bearded man standing in mid-stream who reaches down to retrieve a golden lavaliere of ancient design which he holds up to the sun. We are then instantly transported from summer to winter and many years in the future to visit the same lodge of Belva Nera and Il Solengo where the dining hunters sing the verse, “The doctor’s son is half crazy. With fire and fury he did justice!”

The doctor’s son is Luciano (Gabriele Silli), whom the hunters say lived in either the late 19th or early 20th century. As one of the hunters extolls, “Vejano was a town of poor people and princes,” but our protagonist Luciano was somewhere in between, as his father’s position allowed him to subsist as the town drunkard who could brazenly despise the prince for closing off the pathway around the castle where the town’s shepherds once walked their sheep. As the oral exposition continues, we learn that Luciano committed some felony at the Feast of St. Orsio, and the hunters state the town’s long-held assertions that Luciano was either crazy, an aristocrat, or a saint. Depending on the storyteller, Luciano may be a folk hero, a criminal, or an embarrassment in his chapter of the oral legends of the town, but the hunters are quite confident in one fact about the mythical Luciano—he most certainly loved the drink.

For the most part, Luciano, similar to Mario de Marcella in Il Solengo, is content with remaining on the fringes of Vejano, and like Mario, his downfall is ultimately tied to the feelings that he has for a young woman. Here, Luciano has his eyes on Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the daughter of a fiercely overprotective sheep farmer (Severino Sperandio), but Luciano is reluctant to admit his true feelings to her directly. When Emma becomes angered at Luciano’s indifference towards her, he gives her his newly found pendant, and as they grow closer and share in their desire to leave the stale realities of their hometown, Emma’s father becomes more furious.

Concurrently, the prince begins to involve himself with Emma, going as far as to adorn her in the vestiges of the Virgin Mary during a religious festival. And this symbolic act provokes Luciano to express his hatred for the social, religious, and royal forces within Vejano that suppress people to remain in their expected places and roles with not only a sacrilege, but also the extreme act inherent in the title of the first part of The Tale of King Crab, “The Saint Orsio Misdeed.” Having finally gone too far, Luciano’s father must exile his son to Argentina, and with that banishment to a land far away from Vejano, our enclave of hunters, who return to the screen in a state of greater inebriation, must dig even deeper into their imaginations to determine a course for their village’s anti-hero.

The second half of the film places Luciano in a quasi-purgatorial state in Tierra del Fuego. Now sober, he is draped in clerical vestiges acquired from an arrow-punctured priest who, in exchange for a proper burial, offers Luciano a fortune in Incan gold. But to pinpoint the location of this cache, Luciano must turn to an unusual gold divining rod, the titular giant crab, a much less threatening beast than the panthers, jaguars, and vipers that occupied the minds of Vejano’s residents in Belva Nera and Il Solengo. With animals as allies in this distant and mysterious terrain, a group of gun-wielding pirates emerges as the key threat as they aim to plunder the very treasure that Luciano desperately hopes to discover for himself.

As the narrative of the second part of The Tale of King Crab develops, Luciano transcends his status as folk hero/anti-hero—the paradoxical embodiment of Vejano’s hopes and fears within the boundaries of the town—and becomes a legendary hero. Fortified by Rigo de Righi and Zoppis’ ability to draw from the films of Herzog and Nicolas Winding Refn that depict daring explorations into unknown lands, Luciano inhabits a world and a role grander than the ones from insular mythologies that have long been fabricated in Vejano, and he accomplishes feats of perseverance, ingenuity, courage, self-discovery, and redemption, foundational triumphs that make up heroic journeys across all time.

In the first chapter of The Tale of King Crab, we get to see the origins of Luciano as told through the hunters’ present iterations of his story with gaps and inconsistencies filled by Rigo de Righi and Zoppis’ understanding of the region, the lore, and Luciano’s fallibility as a human and as an outsider from the dominant classes of Vejano. But as the tale of Luciano moves away from the village, and the hunters’ accounts of his adventures become mere speculations at best, the directors create their own story of Luciano’s ascension into a saint, a figure who can inspire wonder, evoke catharsis, and elevate the hunters’ existence away from the provincial reality that they’ve always known. Together, these two parts of The Tale of King Crab present a unique kind of hybrid cinema that underscores the influence of reality on folklore while also embracing the imprecision and exaggerations of the human imagination and our time-tested fascination in characters who can transcend the challenges of their realities. This dual approach offers a distinctively fresh perspective on fairy tales, one in which Luciano is fundamentally human in his foibles and desires, but mythical in his ability to overcome his mistakes and shed away his fears and weaknesses. And thus, by the end of The Tale of King Crab, when Luciano does become a hero in a classical sense, he’s not too far out of reach from the hunters in Vejano, and he’s not out of reach from us, wherever we may be, as well.

The Tale of King Crab is being distributed in the US by Oscilloscope Laboratories and is currently available for streaming. Feature image courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Lily and Generoso Fierro

A Chiara


Originally published on Ink 19 on June 1, 2022

A Chiara
directed by Jonas Carpignano

Back in 2017, we sat down with director Jonas Carpignano shortly after the AFI Fest screening of A Ciambra, the second installment of his Calabrian triptych set in the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro. During that conversation, Carpignano eschewed the term “trilogy” for “triptych” in describing his series of features, which sees its conclusion with A Chiara, the winner of the Directors’ Fortnight Award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. There is good reason for a clear delineation of terms here when describing Carpignano’s triptych of MediterraneaA Ciambra, and A Chiara. These films are, as the director stated in 2017, “tied together through overlapping characters and motifs, even less than narrative logic.” As with a triptych like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s BlueWhite, and Red, you can experience each film individually on its own merits, but it is their collective power that confirms the overarching significance of their unity.

With Gioia Tauro as a constant throughout, Carpignano’s triptych utilizes the familial motivations of its three central characters, who possess different ethnic and economic backgrounds, to examine how each character’s actions are conceived and received based on the varying degrees of acceptance from their own or surrounding community. In Mediterranea, we follow Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), who has made the perilous journey from Burkina Faso to Italy with the goal of finding any work that could help him send funds back to his family in Africa. Although he finds work in Gioia Tauro as a migrant laborer, he is not accepted by the bulk of the residents in his new environment, and his presence is often met with overt resistance or dubious opportunities for survival. In A Ciambra, Ayiva returns as the friend of Pio Amato, a young teen who is part of the Romani community in Calabria that is somewhat adjusted to life there, but is not fully accepted by the native Calabrians. As Pio and Ayiva have both been ostracized from the broader community due to their backgrounds, they become close friends, but when a dire situation arises within Pio’s family, the differences between the two friends overshadow their commonalities.

With A Chiara, Carpignano places a female in the lead for the first time in the form of 15-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), the middle daughter of upper-middle class parents Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) and Carmela (Carmela Fumo) Guerrasio. Chiara is a quintessential Gen Z Italian teen. As the film begins, she works out on a treadmill in a fashionable gym before readying herself for the lavish, but warm, festivities surrounding her elder sister Giulia’s (Grecia Rotolo) eighteenth birthday. At the party, Chiara makes it clear to her adoring father that she understands, and is content with, the quasi-normal family dynamic and order her parents have created, and she joyously dances and blissfully documents the celebration on her phone with the knowledge that her worldview is secure.

However, when Chiara steps out from the festivities and is confronted outside of the party venue by her cousin, who frowns upon on her smoking and rebellious attitude, Carpignano veers the viewer toward a classical coming of age film but shifts away from such a conceit when Chiara, later that evening, sees a firebomb destroy her father’s car in front of the family home. Her father soon becomes a fugitive for his connections to the ‘Ndrangheta, and Chiara is awakened from the fantasy that her family’s protection and her non-Roma, non-African ethnicity have afforded her up to this point in her young life.

With the grim news spreading to her school, Chiara is humiliated and flabbergasted by the realization that she has lived for so long without any knowledge of her father’s illicit activities. As she seeks to find the truth, she digs through her home and discovers her father’s abandoned hideout while virulently confronting her mother and her older sister, Giulia, about what they know. When their answers prove less than satisfying to Chiara, she embarks on a mission with a clue from Ayiva, whom she meets outside of her cousin’s café, that leads her to Ciambra, the center of the Roma community in Gioia Tauro and the neighborhood of the Amato family, whom we lived with in Carpignano’s previous entry of the triptych and whom we briefly see again in A Chiara. The residents of Ciambra, whom Chiara has looked down upon and even mistreated at times, express their familiarity with her father, bringing forth a revelation that further erodes the comfortable social gap that Chiara once believed existed between her and them.

As Chiara feels her social status and trust in her family dissipate with each new finding, she takes out her frustrations by committing a violent action against a Roma teen girl, resulting in a governmental order for Chiara to live with a wealthy family helmed by a pediatrician in Urbino, a walled city known as the birthplace of Raphael with a center declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Urbino symbolizes the pure essence of Renaissance Italy, and Gioia Tauro, the once planned industrial hub, exemplifies the country’s failure to modernize the south. Thus, despite her perceived level of “Italianness” over Ayiva and Pio’s respective communities, Chiara must now assume the role of immigrant in her own country as she departs the place of her birth, the place forever associated with the criminality of her family, and a place with a radically different culture and history than that of Urbino.

Essential to A Chiara’s profoundly unapologetic, determined mood, is Carpignano’s continued commitment to using non-professional actors who clearly understand the region depicted in his triptych. Swamy Rotolo, whose only other acting credit is a small role in A Ciambra, assuredly handles the task of playing a difficult, and at times unsympathetic, character with a fierce bravado offset by a palpable angst that pays homage to Monica Vitti’s performance in Red Desert. Whereas Vitti’s character’s naïveté and cloistered world shatters with her growing awareness of the poisons of industrialization led by her husband and lover, Chiara’s innocence disintegrates as she discovers the role her family plays in distributing drugs in the aftermath of failed industrialization.

However, Chiara dominates the screen, not landscapes of the aging portside waterfront nor portraits of the broken promises of 20th century modernity, and this tighter focus on Chiara draws you deeper into her questions, experiences, and decisions to complete the triptych’s connective notion of sacrifice and status. Ayiva sacrifices himself for the future of his family. Pio sacrifices his friendship with Ayiva for the sake of his familial ties, and Chiara sacrifices her family for the sake of her own future. What each character ultimately sacrifices becomes a representation of the vast difference in choices available for each based on their current socioeconomic status and how long they and their families have lived in Italy, and altogether, the three characters and their respective films illuminate how decades, even centuries, of history can collide in a single place in a single point in time through different communities and their perceived and true state of acclimation to contemporary Italy.

A Chiara is currently showing in limited theaters in the United States. Featured image courtesy of mk2 films. •

Lily and Generoso Fierro