An intimate piece of romantic folklore with breathtaking geographical ambition, “The Tale of the King Crab” comes to theaters feeling familiar, but startling in what it shows us and where it takes us.
Its first half is an immersive Italian period piece, the story of a love that cannot be in an exquisitely detailed recreation of a 19th century Italian village. The second half is where our damned, lovelorn hero exiles himself to “the a–h–e of the world,” Tierra del Fuego, and finds himself hunting for Spanish treasure with the help of a king crab.
Documentarians Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis, who gave us “Il solengo,” the non-fiction account of a hermit in the woods near Rome, make their feature debut another story of a loner of legend, this one a dissolute doctor’s son who moves back home and crawls into a bottle as he becomes smitten with a peasant lass.
Our story is told by storytellers, a group of older modern day Italian hunters eating, drinking and regaling each other with the passed-down account of Luciano (documentary director turned actor Gabrielle Silli). The yarn-spinners acknowledge how such tales are exaggerated in the retelling, but carry on nevertheless, painting a portrait of village life surrounding this town drunk.
His father once sent him to Rome to be cured, but that plainly didn’t take. Locals either put up with Luciano or mutter under their breath about him, sitting alone, drinking in the inn or taking a bottle out into the fields or forests.
As he walks with shepherd Severino (Severino Sperandio) and his herd of goats, they encounter a locked gate on their way to another pasture. The local prince’s aged castle has long been a short cut, through the outer walls and across the filled-in moat, that shepherds have used. Tipsy Luciano won’t stand for it. He kicks the gate open.
That sets events in motion involving the prince, the two local thugs in soiled police uniforms and Severino’s daughter (Maria Alexandra Lungu), whom Luciano has started courting in secret. He even gives her an amulet of “Etruscan gold” he happened upon in a nearby stream. But her father fears he’ll “ruin her reputation,” and plots against him.
We can hope all we want, but we just know that isn’t going to end well. That’s how Luciano finds himself “extradited” to Argentina, to Tierra del Fuego, the storytelling hunters say. That’s how he winds up in a priest’s vestments leading, pretty much at gunpoint, sailors infected with “gold fever” looking for buried Spanish treasure with the aid of a king crab that he totes in a bucket of salt water.
Perhaps only documentary filmmakers would have the daring to take their crew to one of the most remote and under-filmed places on Earth for their third act. They recreate the (wooden) shipwreck-littered coast, sample the striking topography and capture glimpses of the exotic wildlife. And when the chips are down, they stage an Old West shoot-out on the rocky moonscape every bit as shorn of vegetation as any desert setting in the American Southwest.
I love the way this leisurely, 19th-century-paced film moves from sunny, verdant Tuscany to overcast and forbidding Tierra del Fuego, taking Luciano from heaven to Hell, or at least Purgatory, exiled between the Strait of Magellan and Cape Horn.
The tale itself is a sort of parable of drunkenness, “gold fever” and its bloody-mindedness. And if our hero isn’t exactly doing penance, he is at least on his way to something like romantic closure, led by a crab he takes out of the water to periodically show him the way.
Rating: unrated, violence, alcohol abuse, smoking
Cast: Gabriele Silli, Maria Alexandra Lungu, Severino Sperandio and Jorge Prado
Credits: Scripted and directed by Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis. An Oscilloscope Labs release.
Running time: 1:45