The Tale of King Crab (De Granchio) is a cinematically rich and gorgeously landscaped parable of forbidden love, identity, classism, soul freedom, and the power of storytelling to communicate wisdom and human fealty that rhetoric cannot. Written and directed by Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis, De Granchio made its World Premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival-Directors’ Fortnight and was an official selection at the 2021 New York Film Festival. The film went on to win 7 awards out of its thirteen nominations. Stunning and memorable for Simone D’Arcangelo’s cinematography and Vittorio Giampietro’s haunting, striking music, the layered story by de Righi, Zoppis, Tomasso Bertani and Carlo Lavagna moves through conflict and reprisal to suspenseful, eerie adventure before it settles on its mystical takeaway.
The film begins with the image of a bearded man who appears backlit in the shallow edge of a lake, picking up a thin golden hued ornament lying underwater on pebbles. From the shimmering lake image filmmakers transfer to the present evening where Bruno awaits his paesani who are elderly hunters in modern day Tusci, Italy. The established community of friends gather to eat pasta, sing, drink wine and reflect upon generational stories some have heard and others have not, as they enjoy each other’s company and fill in gaps of information for elucidation and edification.
The storytelling and communal singing is a throwback to ancient times when hunter-gathers and indigenous people sat around the campfire and shared lessons which entertained, yet brought a chill of recognition that would heal and uplift in cathartic moments of revelation. Likewise, in their film the directors pay homage to the process of storytelling with their extraordinary images and beautiful shot compositions. The arc of development is surprising because their spare evocative minimalism keeps the viewer enthralled, worried and engaged.
As the filmmakers flit from present to past, they unravel the legend merging the generational aspect of the tale as the elders in the present portray characters from over a hundred years ago. For example Bruno, who is the chief story-teller, singer (Tosca) and local Inn Keeper of Luciano’s village transposes from the present to the past and back to the present when the story takes an incredible voyage to a strange land of monstrous beauty.
As all great stories combine the fascination of the listeners as they build on the fascination of listeners past, the listeners intrude in the beauty of this legend of Luciano (Gabriele Silli) whose name in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese means light. Indeed, this Luciano is a bearer of light. He manifests this treasure because he has experienced great pain. As we watch his journey from weal to woe, we note his perception and growth as a man who has gained the wisdom to receive the timelessness of spiritual love.
The film progresses after the hunters eat. Bruno sings a refrain of the legend of Luciano, a doctor’s son in the town of Vejano, Italy around the turn of the century, near the place where they now hunt. Bruno sings the second refrain which in two lines summarizes the first chapter of events. Filmmakers use the haunting melody of Bruno’s song carried by a lone flute transporting us into the flashback of the past in the remote town in Tuscany, where the tall, massively dark bearded Luciano drinks from a bottle and meanders along the road, whistling the same melody that Bruno sang, as we seamlessly move from present to past. In Bruno’s voice over we note that the townsfolk have labeled Luciano many things, crazy, a drunk, a saint, an aristocrat, and as the film progresses, he is the full measure of all these characteristics and more.
Luciano lives a life of leisure it would seem, as a doctor’s son with possibly aristocratic patronage in a town of the very poor and a prince who lives in a castle. The “prince” is a vestige of feudal times which have just ended with Italy’s unification twenty years before. Immediately, the story moves to Luciano’s classist conflict with the prince who has blockaded a shortcut path through his property to the other side of the village. It is a path which has been accessible for generations. Seeing the gate has been locked and one of the shepherds has been inconvenienced, Luciano breaks open the gate and the shepherd takes his sheep through, even though he warns Luciano the prince will press charges for the damage.
We understand why Luciano accompanies the shepherd. He has a daughter Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu) that Luciano has known for years and with whom he has formed a love attachment. They meet and talk to each other and Luciano gives her the thin ornament he retrieved from the lake that he tells Emma is Etruscan gold that has great significance. It is then she tells him of a dream she had about him and a desire for her destiny. How her dream comes true by the conclusion of the film is rapturous, if you understand the profound significance.
During the course of the next scenes, we learn that the prince has strengthened the locked gate and has hired two uneducated, crass thugs to confront Luciano in the Inn where he goes to drink, though his father warned him not to. When they tell him not to break the gate again, Luciano’s toast reveals his character and the nature of the town’s burden of class inequity between rich and poor. Luciano drinks to the prince, to their rights and to the Republic. When one of the thugs asks what he means, Luciano says, “Who do you think you are? You’re just pawns!” When the brute goes to respond with a smack, Luciano shows no fear and dares him, receiving a blow which knocks him out.
It is clear Luciano is ahead of his time and could be a leader against the prince’s oppressive, arrogant attempts to hold on to power signified by the ungracious act of locking a right of way his family allowed for generations. However, Luciano’s alcoholism provokes others and causes trouble for his father who takes him home, chides him then comforts him. Luciano humbly apologizes, tells his father he loves him and demeans the greatness of his character by claiming he’s just a “drunk.”
During their talk Luciano reveals he’s in love with Emma. His father gives him a piece of advice, that Severino, despite Luciano’s heritage, will not allow him to marry her. He doesn’t approve of Luciano. Knowing his daughter is fond of Luciano, Severino provokes Luciano with the thought that the Prince is interested in her when she goes to the Prince’s castle to prepare for the procession.
Indeed, Severino has given permission for his daughter to be dressed in feudal clothing as La Donna in the Saint Orsio procession. When Luciano confidently confronts her in the presence of the wealthy at the castle while they decide what she should wear, she admits she doesn’t fit in. One of the prince’s friends arrogantly states that Luciano is “a ghost,” as he speaks to Emma. This nobleman refuses to acknowledge that Luciano takes a rebellious stand in attempting to prove that the prince and the wealthy caste are like everyone else in Italy, even if they have money, since it has become a Republic.
Meanwhile, Severino elicits the help of the thugs to go after Luciano who is now the enemy of Severino and the Prince. Luciano, fueled by the wine from the communion table (symbolic), shows he will not be ruled by the prince in a symbolic act which ends in a catastrophe and horrific incident. Ambiguously, the filmmakers infer that Emma may or may not have been attacked and raped as the thugs take her to the prince, a situation that is unbeknownst to Luciano.
Filmmakers switch to the present and the hunters discuss that the catastrophe forces Luciano to flee the town and go to Argentina where he lives in exile. And they warn that from that point on, the story becomes unreliable. Filmmakers take us from the comfort of the apparently truthful paesano in Italy and launch out across the ocean where the story transports us into the realms of the mythic.
The next time we see Luciano and hear him in a voice over, he is wearing the cassock of a Salesian priest and on a treasure hunting adventure in “The Asshole of the Earth,” an island in the remote and visually fearsome and beautifully barren Tierra del Fuego. Here the music and cinematography meld in a pageantry of images, sounds and silences that create suspense and drama. Luciano must protect himself from vicious pirates who have nothing to lose in their search for gold as they accompany him in the hunt.
Luciano is the map to the gold with the help of a creature who is the most unlikely traveler up mountains and through rocky terrain, spongy tundra and wind-blasted trees. Together, the men look for the lost gold of the shipwrecked Jacinta owned by the Spanish monarchy. The Jacinta’s captain and crew died because they underestimated that death lurked everywhere on the island where they landed.
As the legend creates a life of its own, the hunters in the present fade away. Luciano becomes the hero living his legend before us. Resilient, experienced in fighting off those out to destroy him, Luciano proves to be far from the ghostly figure the arrogant lord described him to be years before. He has matured and stopped drinking. Valiant and on a mission to return home with gold, he delivers the drama, excitement and amazing revelation in this final chapter of his story. And as a legendary hero, he himself learns the significance of the gold ornament that he picked up in the lake in Tusci where we glimpsed him in the first image of the film.
This setting in the second segment of the film, like the tone and mood is stark, desolate and hardscrabble, as the first chapter is romantic, luscious and tragic. Filmmakers add even greater depth to the characterization of Luciano showing he has become more poetic, insightful and ironic in his search for the gold which becomes synonymous with home. Also, the filmmakers continue paying homage to the process of storytelling to uplift and educate in this segment as well. It is through the indigenous peoples’ stories someone wrote down that Luciano learns of the golden treasure on the island and how to find it.
In learning about the gold, Luciano, humorously states words to the effect, “I saw an opportunity. After all, this is America.” We are reminded of the stories that brought the explorers to the new world, and the emigrants who are brought to the Americas because of the streets metaphorically are paved with gold. However, for Luciano, the gold signifies something intangible. Interestingly, the symbolism and multiple meanings of this are revealed at the film’s conclusion. Most importantly, as a result of Luciano’s incredible journey to the other side of the world, he is brought to the greatest depths of his own spiritual growth and golden nature. Of course his greatness was within him all along, he just had to realize it.
The film is just dynamite in its multi-dimensional themes, (one of which is immigrants forever wish to return to home), homage to storytellers who keep legends alive, cinematic beauty, superb music, sound design, pacing and all of what I’ve mentioned above. Filmmakers were anointed ushering in the fabulous inwardly deep performance by Gabriele Silli whose piercing blue eyes seem to have traveled to deeper realms than we can ever understand. As his accompaniment the sweetness and peasant nobility of Maria Alexandra Lungu is graceful and worthy of the object of his forever love.
This is one to see. It opens in New York City on April 15 at Film at Lincoln Center. For tickets and times go to their calendar. https://www.filmlinc.org/calendar/ In Los Angeles The Tale of King Crab opens April 29th.
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