Peasant legend meets cinematic folklore in “The Tale of King Crab,” the fictional feature debut from a pair of young Italian filmmakers – Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis – whose reverence for the rich and haunting old stories about strange fates is palpable in nearly every shot of this handcrafted adventure.
The duo’s previous films (“Il Solengo” and “Belva Nera”) were documentaries inspired by folk tales handed down by crusty Italian hunters in a mountainous region north of Rome. Here they again took inspiration from that well and even used a framing device of those close-knit real-life men gathered around a table, spinning a thread over a doctor’s son from there. a long time in their old village of Vejano who started a fight with an aristocrat who didn’t exactly go his way.
The man is Luciano, played with Herzogian intensity by rookie actor Gabriele Silli (an artist friend of directors). Wandering the city as an angry misfit practicing for his time as a town ghost, he is an outcast to the townspeople: always drunk, said to be mad, and dangerously in love with his childhood friend Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu ). She can see the kind and gentle soul behind his crazy thick beard and large penetrating eyes, and his teasing, tender attention – rendered with delicacy and humor in delightfully shot scenes taking full advantage of the hushed beauty of this rural area – is a calming influence upon him. But the prospect of their mating puts Luciano in the crosshairs of his protective goatherd father, Severino (Severino Sperandio).
It is Luciano’s bitter and violent reaction to the regional prince’s closure of a castle passage long used by citizens that seals his fate, however, the consequences of which send him into an exile that brings the first half of “The Tale of King Crab” to a fiery ending, with barely a glimpse of a crustacean to be had.
It’s saved for Chapter 2, a separate but connected tale set in beautiful, forbidden Tierra del Fuego during its 19th-century gold rush, unfolding like a John Huston adventure through a spaghetti western. Silli is back as a Salesian priest whose method of finding supposed Spanish treasure in a mountain lake is a red king crab kept in a bucket. On its tail are fortune hunters with guns. Once again, obsession and loneliness can tip a man’s fate – much like the movements of a crab – to the side.
At times, at its most brooding moments, “The Tale of King Crab” can seem a little too cautious and adoring about its adventure into meat and the power of lore. Especially in the second half, Lucretia Martel’s galvanizing and evocative engagement with the story’s intimate spaces comes to mind, and comparison can sometimes fail. But for the most part, the filmmakers are looking for their own era mix: how respect for oral tradition and love for a torn thread can be a gateway to invention and allusion.
If nothing else, they are wonderfully confident performers with image, texture, and music. The Italian countryside, as explored in Simone D’Arcangelo’s cinematography and directors’ filming, is captured in all its beauty, and the striped, sun-kissed faces of the region’s inhabitants provide their own painterly topography. When the film throws itself halfway around the world for the second half, the change of scenery to the grey-green vastness of the cold archipelago of southern Argentina is invigorating, as is the almost mystical redness of this crab. Meanwhile, Vittorio Giampietro’s score – a mix of folksong, percussion and solo instruments – is its own artful coloring.
There are times when “The Tale of King Crab” feels like it could have been made in the age of silence, so devoted are Rigo de Righi and Zoppis to the simple, dramatic power of what they choose to show us. Their characters search for love, justice and gold while the filmmakers make clear what they hold dear: ageless tales like these.
“The Story of the King Crab”
In Italian and Spanish with English subtitles
Operating time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Starts April 29, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles