The term “black souls” (anime nere in Italian), to my mind, has a double meaning. It refers to individuals who commit evil acts, but at the same time, to men who conceal a black soul behind the appearance of respectability.
It’s the perfect phrase for both my film Black Souls and its subject: the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, which the Italian judiciary describes as an invisible mafia that camouflages itself in the midst of normal civil society.
The ‘Ndrangheta: A Historical Primer
Historians disagree on the birth date of the powerful ‘Ndrangheta, which is widespread across half the world today. It was definitely born before the Italian State in the late 19th century. (Many documents mention the existence of ‘Ndrangheta bosses already during the reign of the Bourbon kings, between the 18th and 19th centuries.)
Back then it was a peasant mafia, consisting of low-level criminals whom the State tolerated in exchange for secret control over territories far away and hostile. Today, renegade sectors of the Italian state, as well as corrupt politicians and businessmen, continue with increasingly sophisticated methods to weave relations with these criminals, making it harder for the healthy part of society to fight it. But the real problem is that in the past 20 years, this mafia, thanks to younger generations and international cocaine trafficking—and in direct contact with the Colombian and Mexican cartels, as well as banks and construction enterprises, corrupt politicians, and judges—has become even more powerful and dangerous.
Court records and newspaper stories tell us that the ‘Ndrangheta is a multi-headed monster: One part of it is still rooted in traditional peasant culture (in rural Aspromonte, for example, some families still make major decisions before a slaughtered goat), but other parts are upper middle class, educated, blending smoothly into the worlds of modern finance and business. The same family might have members who belong to these different groups. The other distinguishing feature of this mafia is that it is extremely difficult for anyone who is not an immediate family member to be “connected.” It is very hard to fight it through the testimony of turncoats, since their speaking out would mean sending another family member to prison.
A Journey to Hell
The novel on which my film Black Souls is based, Anime Nere by Gioacchino Criaco, won me over immediately, catapulting me into a dark, unknown world. The book narrates a journey to hell within a criminal world, without intermediate characters or representatives of law and order, such as policemen or judges. The narrator’s vision is neither romantic nor glamorous; it is authentic and filled with suffering. Bolivia, the abandoned villages of southern Italy, Milan and the stock market, the goats and mountains of Aspromonte, the archaic and the modern co-existing in the same person: This was rich subject matter.
A few days after reading the novel, I had already left for Calabria in the South, with the curious mindset of a documentary filmmaker or an anthropologist. I immediately realized that reading the novel and court transcripts were not enough. I wanted to achieve a gritty realism with the film, so I needed direct contact with the subject matter.
I asked the novelist, Gioacchino Criaco, to be my collaborator. He was born in a small town called Africo, considered the headquarters of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, which was the setting for his novel. I wanted to shoot the film there with the participation of most of the local populace. Everyone tried to dissuade me: The subject matter was too difficult, the place was too inaccessible, too dangerous. It was an impossible film. Without asking for anything in exchange, Criaco said he was available—he was happy that someone was adapting his book. I traveled down there by myself, meeting first with Criaco and then with his friends.
Dissipating Local Fear
When I arrived in Calabria, filled with prejudices and fears, I discovered a highly complex, variegated reality. I spoke with as many people as I could from every social class. The process lasted for months. I tried to involve almost the whole town, explaining that I wanted to make a film not so much about Africo but with Africo. I found out that in this town, many people wanted to tell their fragment of the story—even if it was mixed with fantasy, even if its contents were dark.
During my whole journey, I never hear a word from the ‘Ndrangheta. Maybe it decided not to make itself heard. At first no one trusted me; no one answered my questions. Nothing bad happened, but people were totally clammed up. It was impossible to build any kind of rapport with them. Then things started to change, slowly but surely. Most of the people of Africo realized that it could be a shared project that also belonged to them. I saw distrust turn into curiosity and houses open their doors.
Our “meeting point” was at the level of fiction; imagination. I wasn’t telling a true story. I was telling a story that resembled a true story. The two are very different. I do movies, not investigations; I don’t give away first and last names. Within this tacit agreement, the locals gave me their green light, and I was able to tell many truths that often remain hidden from documentaries.
Building a Common Language
I wanted the film to be shot in the local dialect—the archaic language of Aspromonte. That was the only way to recreate the sense of “otherness” that my characters feel toward the outside world. Calabria is a region “invaded by Italy, like Palestine,” as some Calabrians still describe their homeland today. I needed actors from southern Italy itself.
So at the same time as I cast professional actors, I formed another team of non-professionals who lent themselves to the production. All of them were inhabitants of the areas where I was shooting in southeastern Calabria, opposite Greece: Africo, Biaco, Bova, Locri. Amateurs, teachers, lawyers, construction workers, farmers, shepherds… They became not only actors, but excellent actors. I worked with everyone without asking about their criminal records or being subject to threats or obligations, criticism or special requests. It was a risky experiment, but it succeeded. In fact, I felt a passion and an energy there that I no longer found on location in Milan upon my return to our normal working dynamic.
Together with the set designer and one of the locals, we went into many homes, noting the difference between the outside of a house (often dismal) and its rich and luxurious interiors, emphasizing the divide between private and public dimensions. After a few months of writing the script and location scouting, when the area seemed “ready” to welcome the production, I convened the cast and crew. Some of them were scared. I convinced them we wouldn’t run into any problems, at least not the ones they anticipated in dealing with a territory notorious for crime. I wasn’t 100 percent sure of this, myself—it was a risk I took.
That was the moment when I was most afraid. I worried that my trust in these people was misplaced. Until then, I was managing and controlling the whole network of local relationships. After that it would become impossible. More than 100 people would be arriving from Rome and there was a risk that the situation would get out of hand. Yet everyone worked hard to make sure that the experiment would work. Even the village of Africo and the so-called “cursed” part of Calabria wanted to show the nation as a whole that something good could come out of this land, not just crime and death. And the people proved this by making this harsh and horrific film. It might sound paradoxical but it isn’t: The town had the courage to talk about its ghosts.
I brought my two teams together for a reading that lasted almost two weeks. We wrote and rewrote the dialogue, developing a common language—a “Black Souls dialect.” (Even in Italy the film came out with subtitles, since the majority of Italians do not understand this dialect.) Making this film became a collective liberating rite. The professional actors learned speech patterns, expressions, and even body language from the non-professionals. The non-professionals, in turn, learned the rules of the craft and the hard work that it involves. The two groups mixed together seamlessly. In the end I couldn’t tell them apart.
The Land Speaks for Itself
It was hard to reach some of the abandoned hamlets up in the mountains, without paved roads or electricity, much less to film there. The people helped us with their knowledge of the locations, and things that had at first seemed impossible became easy. I don’t mean to suggest that it was paradise, though—the task was still extremely harsh.
My cinematographer, Vladan Roadovic, and I decided to use an ARRI Alexa camera, which allowed us to film in dimly lit interiors. We used the old series of super speed 1.3 lenses, which are not so neat and precise, but have imperfections that allow us to create a very natural, rough look. I asked him, jokingly, to “turn off” the sun of Calabria and to follow the story’s growing dramatic momentum. We wanted the interiors to recall the paintings of Caravaggio and the cold rooms in the English castles of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Then we simply waited for the winter and shot as much as possible with the clouds overhead, leaving it up to those beautiful faces, those unexplored places, the cobalt blue Ionian sea, sudden storms—and even the goats—to do the rest. MM
Black Souls opens in theaters Friday, April 10, 2015, courtesy of Vitagraph Films. For more information on upcoming screenings, visit its official website. This article was translated from Italian by Michael Moore.