Princes and poor people.
While Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis‘ Re Granchio [The Tale of King Crab] begins with the discovery of a piece of Etruscan gold by a 19th century self-loathing, drunken lover known as Luciano (Gabriele Silli), we don’t meet the character until after being whisked away to the Tuscia, Italy village Vejano and a group of present-day hunters gathering for food, wine, and stories. These are real people as far as I’m aware, men whose words already inspired a prior short and feature length documentary by the filmmakers. Hearing them talk of this man, however, led to competing tales that sprawled out in different directions, each providing tiny morsels of presumed fact with little to no concrete end. So, the directors decided they would add their own.
It’s why we don’t see those hunters again past the mid-way point. They begin their narration of Luciano as the stories describe: a depressed man of privilege who couldn’t care less about wealth or status (his father Bruno was a respected doctor tiring of saving his son from his self-destruction). We learn of his love for the young daughter (Maria Alexandra Lungu‘s Emma) of a neighboring sheep herder and of her reciprocation. Who’s he to dare ask for marriage, though, since he spends his life at the bottom of a bottle when not picking fights with the region’s prince over a once opened gate now being closed? Maybe she could save him if he let her, but his inability to sober up puts salvation out of her control.
The result is exile. The details of this excommunication prove the first hour’s payoff while revealing the greed, deception, and misogyny of men. It’s there that the hunters lose their grip on Luciano’s life, his later years lost to time save a few other references to Argentina and the search for lost Spanish gold. Cue chapter two and its gorgeous vistas populated by pirates searching for treasure with the assistance of a local priest named Father Antonio. Except we know this man of God and he was nothing of the sort back in Italy. Did Luciano getting cast out from Europe lead him to the cloth? Is he yet one more opportunist looking for a way out from destitution? Luciano once squandered everything. Now he’s desperate for reclamation.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s hungry for gold, though. The man who once told his village he wanted nothing to do with money when freedom to travel like he had as a boy was all that mattered still exists. He might be older and even more cynical, but this adventure has a purpose beyond the material gains craved by men willing to kill each other to find it. The treasure Luciano seeks is and will always be Emma regardless of whether he’ll ever be able to actually see her again. Perhaps his success is nothing more than a desire to cleanse himself of his sins. If God’s grace dares to allow him this victory, maybe he can forgive himself for what he’s done. It’s all he has left.
Doing so will be a test of will and faith considering he cannot trust the men currently by his side. All he can do is follow the king crab in his bucket, its own desire to return home potentially leading them to where the original captain hid the treasure from his mutinous men. Much like he was sold out in Italy, however, these pirates aren’t keen on brotherhood if individuality fills their pockets further. Where Luciano allowed himself to become the most expendable citizen of his village, he must now be the most indispensable of this party. The end promises one of two conclusions: redemption or death. Neither is necessarily better than the other. They may not even be different. They merely provide this Italian legend his denouement.
The Tale of King Crab is thus a singular cinematic work that brings folklore to life less to provide a morality lesson than a fictionalized historical account of the places economic inequality pushed impoverished men who had already forsaken their souls. It’s a romance and yet we know pretty much from the start that its lovers will never be together—not because it their love wasn’t strong enough, but because real love was a fantasy in an era driven by power and control. The filmmakers talk about doing a lot of research to try and figure out what the “real” Luciano did upon leaving Italy and concocted their continuation of his story with seeming accuracy as well as the narrative propulsion to captivate and invest their audience.
A big draw too is Simone D’Arcangelo‘s cinematography both in confined spaces of the first half and expansive landscapes of the second. Couple that with the soft grain of 16mm film and there’s an epic lushness to the whole that helps to transport us into this not quite biographical account of a man whose name has been passed down for generations. And Silli is magnetic in the lead—his Luciano as fierce as he is broken. Put a few drinks in him and he’ll stand against any sort of tyranny his addled mind believes has been made. Give him the opportunity to remember his sins and the tortured visage of a “ghost,” as coined by that Italian prince, returns to haunt what little physical form he has left.
courtesy of Oscilloscope