Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 10th, 2021
The Tale of King Crab (Alessio Rigo de Righi/Matteo Zoppis, 2021) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Heretofore documentary filmmakers Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis (Il solengo) try their hand at a fictional narrative, albeit one grounded in their previous nonfiction work, to deliver a two-part fable of failure and rebirth. Set, in the beginning, in a small Italian municipality north of Rome, the movie then jumps to the majestic peaks of Argentina’s southern Tierra del Fuego province. All the while, de Righi and Zoppis explore the role of oral traditions in the shaping of myth and legend, folk songs and stories populating both the diegetic and non-diegetic audio landscapes. This expressive sound design is complemented by beautiful cinematography, shot perfectly to evoke the film’s late-19th-century period. If ultimately not quite as sublime as the mountains in which its final scenes take place, The Tale of King Crab is still a work of genuine cinematic imagination and power.
The film starts in the present, though in an atmosphere redolent of nostalgia, as a group of elderly men gather for a meal, sharing tunes and tales. Soon they land on the story of one Luciano, a doctor’s son who lived in their region well over a hundred years ago. They differ on what exactly happened to him and why, but agree that he was a drunk, among other identities. We then leave our narrators and leap to the past, meeting Luciano (Gabriele Silli), himself. He’s a bit of a ne’er-do-well, always drinking and causing trouble, despite (or maybe because of) his bourgeois background. Angry that the local prince has decided to block the main route normally used by shepherds to move their flocks, Luciano breaks down the offending door. One thing leads to another, and he is forced to flee into exile after setting a fire in an alcoholic rage.
All the while, and before decamping for Argentina, Luciano falls in love with Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu), a farmer’s daughter. Though he has no real prospects in life, she has very few options and returns his affections. She hopes to escape the doldrums of the future set out for her and sees something in Luciano’s free spirit that promises adventure. Unfortunately, her father, Severino (Severino Sperandio), is having none of it. Violence ensues, tempers flare even more, and sparks ignite that will set ablaze the deadly conflagration. We return to our opening dinner, where the old men debate what happened next. Cut to Tierra del Fuego for part 2, entitled “The Asshole of the World.”
There, we meet new characters and rediscover Luciano, now, somehow, in priest’s clothes. A different priest provides voiceover, in words taken from his diary, explaining that there is treasure hidden somewhere down here. A group of mercenaries are on the hunt, fighting (and killing) amongst themselves to find the gold. Along the way, they run into Luciano, who swears that the only way to locate the stash is with a crab as a compass. Where did he come from and how did he get here? That’s less important than the magical realism of it all. Whether or not there are real riches to be recovered or it’s just a fairy tale matters not at all to the movie’s ultimate goal, which is to bask in the joys of storytelling. And at the end, redemption, of a sort, awaits, Luciano and Emma together once more. Is it all but a legend? Perhaps, but that’s the joy of the human experience.