He obviously ate a red mushroom…
The Basic Plot:
A realistic look at the stories of six people whose daily lives are, in various ways, affected by the mafia of southern Italy. Based on the book I’ve never read by Roberto Saviano.
The Break Down:
This import from Italy features a large ensemble cast of people you’ve never heard of, so no reference game. Also, the guy who wrote the book is apparently in hiding with witness protection because of the juicy things he wrote about. With hype like that, you gotta figure the movie has to be pretty legit, right? Right?!
The film is five short stories all rolled into a two hour and fifteen minute movie. I’ll briefly run through everything…with lots of spoilers:
Story 1: A middle-aged man (obviously working for the mob) has the job of delivering money to the families of people serving prison sentences for the organization. Things start to deteriorate within his branch of the mob, someone puts a gun in his mouth and he gets all “I don’t wanna do this anymore.”
Story 2: A thirteen-year-old boy (named after a tiny dog from an old movie) gets lured into mafia life (because being a regular teen is lame…and he already lives in a shitty slum, so it can’t get much worse, right?). He gets initiated (which is a super fucked up scene) into the mob’s junior division (it’s not actually called that) and then just does little bullshit jobs with other teenagers. The aforementioned deterioration within the mob leads to one of his junior division pals defecting away from their branch (or whatever it’s supposed to be called). So (like any good teenaged mafioso) our young whipper-snapper helps murder the little bastard defector’s mom (they really play for keeps in southern Italy).
Story 3: A recent college graduate joins up with a shady guy who dumps harmful chemical waste for the mob (It’s as dumb as it sounds). The young man learns valuable lessons while working with the shady guy. Like how you should never handle toxic waste (always let those more unfortunate than you do it). Or why you shouldn’t allow children to operate heavy machinery (because they can’t reach the pedals and see out the windsheild). Or why working for the fucking mafia isn’t very smart if you have morals (like a pussy).
Story 4: A middle aged fashion designer’s boss has ties to the mob (this story line is only slightly better than the toxic waste one). The designer is in charge of a project that has to be done really quickly for very little pay (which isn’t a very good business practice…if you want profits and stuff). To make some extra skrills (step your ridiculous synonyms for money game up) he helps a group of Asian people learn how to sew really well. Turns out, the mob is super racist and doesn’t like the Asian community. Because of this, the mafia forces our designer out of the dress making business (by murdering a lot of Asian people). The most random (sort of) cameo ever happens at this point (Black Widow) and our man becomes a truck driver (…maybe).
Story 5: Infatuated with the Hollywood gangster image, two shit-head wannabe mafiosi (step your plural Italian word game up) cause a lot of people a lot of problems. They steal drugs and guns (and just generally act like dick-heads), rob a video arcade (something the US desperately needs more of) and draw the attention of the local mafia big shot. After giving the duo a chance to stop being total asses, he has no choice but to have them murdered (which is an overly complicated matter…because it isn’t cool to murder teenagers…or something like that).
After the first few sequences, something you’ll quickly notice about the movie is that it does not give a fuck if you know what’s going on. What we actually see is not hard to follow, but the movie just never feels the need to say “this particular man is associated with the mob” or “this is his job within the organization” or “the mob has split into several factions.” I had no idea what the delivery guy (see Story 1) was doing until the end of his portion of the film (and even then it wasn’t that clear).
You have to fight through a lot of unnecessary confusion before most of the stuff in here makes any real sense. Minor characters are introduced without warning and never explained. Time is a complete non-factor. Hell, even the split within the mob was hard to pick up on.
The second very important factor you should know before going into the movie is that it never tries to entertain you. In fact, just the opposite. This is the type of film that doesn’t set out to let you have good time or allow you to escape your life for two hours, this is the type of film that wants you to go “holy shit, that stuff really happens…like, in real life” as the credits roll. It’s the type of film that wants to resonate with you because it has a point to make (more on that later).
A big beef I have with this movie is the ensemble factor. It isn’t so much about the cast being underdeveloped, just more to do with the stories. The movie is a little over two hours, so when you break it down, each vignette is less than thirty minutes long. With five different plots running simultaneously (and being poorly explained), you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what you aren’t being told. The movie basically begs you for multiple viewings by doing this. At the end of the day, twenty-six minutes just isn’t enough time to really sink into any of the characters or their stories.
This brings up my next point, three of the five stories being told here are just not engaging (like, at all). While the designer and delivery man portions felt like they fit within the overarching scheme of the movie, the toxic waste plot line felt completely worthless. The characters in all three of those stories are the least interesting in the film, making it extra difficult to care about any of them or the things they do. The stories felt like they simply existed to help get the film’s messages across and less like they were there to hold any weight or tell an engaging story.
The film has two points to make. First, that the criminal organization represented here (you know, the one that actually exists) touches everyone’s lives in this area. From a young boy acting as lookout for gang members to an older man delivering money to families each week. The second point (and this is the big one) is that this organization (and, I guess, crime in general) is dirty, cut-throat and incredibly unglamorous. Basically the opposite of how it’s presented in gangster/mafia movies.
Both points are incredibly clear and do come across effectively (mostly because they are face-fucked down the viewers throat), but the stories never felt like they were used to their full potential. The entire film, I think, would’ve been aided by really trimming out two of the three more superfluous story lines. The points still would’ve been made, but the more interesting stories would’ve really been able to breath, expand and draw you in, leading to a bigger emotional payoff in the end.
Now, for all the BIG negatives I’m holding against the film, there are a lot of good things going for it. The acting is excellent. The cinematography is great. While slow, things switch up often enough to keep the pace moving. The movie does a fantastic job of stripping away the “glamour” of being a gangster. At times the film felt more like a documentary than a regular film, something that worked incredibly well for it. The fact that so many aspects of the film are well executed made the big problems here very noticeable, though.
Overall, this is a pretty good movie who’s grand plans work against it a bit too much. The messages being expressed here could’ve been made clear without, at least, one of the less engaging plot lines. The fact that the film expects you to pick up on several integral aspects without help doesn’t make involvement very easy. This is purposeful film making but it really skimps a bit too much on actual story-telling. This is a movie with a very precise focus yet none at all. The big problem here is that the movie focuses so hard on forcing it’s messages out to the audience that the actual stories within lack any focus and end up feeling very hollow. Instead of letting story-telling drive the messages to the viewers, they are simply used as a means to an end. While that end is ultimately reached, we could’ve gotten there in a deeper, much more engaging manner.
*** out of *****
This is a well crafted film that has a lot of positive aspects to it, but what is so troubling here is that the few negatives against it are very big ones. The biggest problem hovering over the film is that over half of the stories and characters presented fail to honestly engage. Of the five vignettes presented, only two feel fully realized. Three of them seem more like cliff-notes for getting the film’s messages across rather than complete stories. While well shot, acted and directed, the film relies too heavily on it’s overarching messages to drive the stories forward instead of the other way around. While there are several scenes that will really grab you, the finished product ultimately feels empty, lacks a real sense of cohesion and fails to deliver material that pulls you in and keeps you engaged.