The Beauty And The Cruelty

in Vienna International Film Festival – Viennale 2021

by Marietta Steinhart

The Tale of King Crab: An eccentric, crustacean Italian fable about forbidden love, greed, and redemption.


The European dream of lost gold led many a conquistador on a fruitless trek into the rainforests and mountains of South America. “We spend our time trying to find meaning”, our quixotic antihero Luciano intones, “but deep down we know we are nothing.”

The tale of Luciano, played by Gabriele Silli (who is sporting a forestry Walt Whitman beard), lies at the heart of The Tale of King Crab (Re Granchio), a new, and outrageously good-looking film by Italian directors Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis. There’s some context that kicks off the story that we are about to see: We embark on a group of elderly Italian hunters in a cabin in a small village outside of Rome, who sing blue songs about times past and lost love. These men are not actors, but real hunters, who told the filmmakers at least some version of the old legend of Luciano. “It’s a dark tale”, so they say in the beginning. Many things were said about Luciano. “Luciano was crazy. Luciano was an aristocrat. Luciano was a saint. Luciano was a drunk.”

He was most likely the latter.

When we first meet him, Luciano is a stumbling, gulping vagabond, falling down at watering holes or stripping naked for everybody to see. His head is pretty much a giant mass of hair with penetrating eyes, a puffy nose, and a mouth thrown in there. It is 1800, early 1900. People are dirt poor in Vejano, and Luciano picks a fight with the locals. The prince has locked the passageway around the castle, where shepherds used to cut through with their sheep. In the meantime Luciano is courting Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu, who appeared in Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders), whose father, a farmer, doesn’t approve of this ne’er-do-well.

Things go even further south for Luciano in this first chapter. A tragedy occurs, and we move on to chapter two, “The Asshole of the World”, transporting us into a Spaghetti Western with some magical realism thrown in there, and the barren landscapes of Argentina’s Tierra Del Fuego, where we also meet the magnificent creature, that gives the film its title. Now, Luciano somehow in priest’s clothes, searches for a hidden treasure alongside a group of greedy pirates using the crab as a compass (yes, I just wrote that). To say more, would spoil the story.

After having made documentary films such as Belva Nera and Il Solengo, The Tale of King Crab is the directors’ first venture into fiction. It’s two films in one, really. The first chapter is lush and sensual, reminiscent of the Italian masters of the Seventies. The second one is equally outlandish and naturalistic, channeling Werner Herzog and José Hernández.

Together with their cinematographer Simone D’Arcangelo, a digital imaging technician on several Woody Allen films such as Wonder Wheel and A Rainy Day in New York, they have created some truly striking images: Etruscan gold, glittering at the bottom of a lake. The glint of the sun in a drunken man’s beard. An old Spanish ship that ran aground after a storm. A lagoon, almost perfectly round without any beaches, surrounded by mountains.

And speaking of landscapes: Gabriele Silli’s face is a landscape of his own, his beard a forest, his green blue eyes the sea. He is not a professional actor (and most of the rest of the ensemble is not either). He is an artist from Rome who apparently moves between sculpture, performance and assemblage art, and yet it doesn’t show that this is his screen debut. He can hold the camera’s and the viewer’s gaze all right with his presence.

The irony of it all is not lost on us. The beauty and the cruelty. Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis, play with clichés, machismo, and myths of false promises and promised lands. I am not sure if I am reading this right, but it seems to me, we look for meaning to other lands, to the other side of the world, only to realize, what we were looking for was there all along, within us.

Mariette Steinhart