As a film reviewer, aesthetic rapture rarely overtakes me. When it does, it is usually because a filmmaker has birthed an artwork wherein everything functions, each element coheres with the other no matter how disparate these elements may be. The craftsmanship of co-directors Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis is on resplendent display in The Tale of King Crab. I do not use the word “craftsmanship” arbitrarily. The Tale of King Crab has an aura of craftsmanship.
Screenplay, cinematography, acting, setting, mood, and above all a kind of authorial eccentricity all coalesce in making a non-generic work of art. Hollywood’s assembly line mentality when it comes to film–or as they see it, visual commodities–could never produce a film such as The Tale of King Crab. The film reminds one of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. In fact, I dare say, King Crab surpasses Herzog’s Aguirre. King Crab is a stew cooked with the choicest ingredients of Herzog, Pasolini, and a more recent Italian director who just like de Righi and Zoppis incorporates lyrical and magical realist elements, Alice Rohrwacher.
King Crab is structured in such a manner that one tale contains another tale. The film opens with a shot of murky water reminiscent of Tarkovsky. A hand reaches into the water and seizes what appears to be a gold amulet. This “gold fever” becomes a central plot point in King Crab’s second half. But initially, our protagonist seems to be the antithesis of anyone willing to die for gold or treasure. We come to know our protagonist, Luciano (Gabriele Silli), by way of the stories of some Italian hunters gathered to share a meal. Did Luciano exist in the 1800s or is he the stuff of pure fancy?
We are not sure. Luciano, as described by the hunters, is the ultimate underdog. He is the son of a doctor, yet a bastard child. He is the village drunkard; however, one is drawn to his independent streak, his willingness to challenge authority. Luciano is irritated by a wooden door erected in the village on the prince’s orders that prevents the local shepherds a shortcut through which to navigate their flocks. Luciano forcibly breaks through the door. As expected, the prince’s goons come looking for him to rough him up. Luciano does not back down. He tells the goons, “You’re just pawns.”
Luciano is romantically interested in a local peasant woman, Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu). When he sees Emma at the prince’s castle during the celebration of the village’s patron saint, Luciano’s discontent with the hierarchical structure of his village reaches an apex. Luciano sets fire to both the prince’s door and his castle. His fate is certainly sealed. Prison awaits him. But thanks to his father’s influence, Luciano is extradited to Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego.
Once the film’s setting changes to Tierra del Fuego in the second half, we are in a different setting both literally and metaphorically. We are introduced to a new tale, one based on the journal entries of one Father Antonio Maria de la Vera. The journal entries give instructions as to how to find a lost treasure. The drunkard Luciano, the same man who referred to himself as a “ghost” and an “empty” entity in the first half of the film is now dressed in a priest’s frock sporting a Nietzschean-like moustache and spouting meditative proclamations. Luciano gets embroiled with a gang of mercenaries trying to find the treasure. And what does Luciano add to this mix of roughnecks? His spirituality and the insight that a king crab will act as a compass leading to the treasure. If Luciano finds the treasure, it will pay for his trip back home to Italy.
Did Luciano truly become a priest? Will the king crab reliably lead the way to the treasure? If such questions seem preposterous, they are. But every bit of preposterousness in King Crab works thanks to de Righi and Zoppis’ direction and screenplay (Tomasso Bertani also gets a screenwriting credit). It is a credit to the screenwriters that a movie told in two halves–one half told in Italian, the other in Spanish–somehow coheres. Luciano goes from drunkard to priest without the viewer feeling any less captivated by him. Themes revolving around religion, greed, and love are all woven together. And even the notion of The Americas as a place of opportunity–with all the hazards that brings–and a place wherein one can recreate oneself, is a theme explored in King Crab.
King Crab accomplishes a difficult feat. It captures the feel of the meandering stories of grandparents. Meandering storytelling may be a bad thing; or it may not. If the story anchors you on the protagonist’s plight, then the many twists and turns of the meandering journey become pleasurable–The Odyssey is a prime example. And there is a Homeric quality to King Crab that I cannot fail to mention. Up until the very end we are not sure if Luciano simply desires riches or riches as a means to regaining a lost love waiting for him, somewhere, out there, beyond Tierra del Fuego. I implore you to join Luciano on his journey. You will be enchanted.
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