Nuanced performances and underdone violence make Black Souls an  elegant mafia flick.
Nuanced performances and underdone violence make Black Souls an elegant mafia flick.

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In a mob movie, if a scene gets too quiet, you know someone’s about to get whacked. Also if a character is smiling as he walks away from a friendly interaction. Didn’t laugh sincerely enough at a rival’s joke? Whackage as soon as his back is turned. And so on.

Black Souls tells the story of three brothers involved in the ’Ndrangheta, an organized crime group based in Italy’s Calabria region. Two of them, Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) and Luigi (Marco Leonardi), are still active in the drug trade; Luigi’s the glad-hander while Rocco has the disposition of an irritated babysitter. You wonder why Rocco still humors Luigi at all (perhaps “humor” isn’t quite the word in terms of thug life), especially in light of a snide implication that he and his wife (Barbora Bobul’ová) have relocated too far from the family ’hood.

The third brother, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), has removed himself from the business, continuing their family’s ancestral work as a goat farmer instead. But look out for hotheaded Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), Luciano’s grown son. Teens with law-abiding parents and “cool” criminal uncles can be bad news.

No spoilers, but ask yourself: Is it even possible for a mafia tale to result in anything but bad news?

Black Souls, adapted from a novel and directed by Francesco Munzi, is a relatively low-key affair that lacks a huge body count and whose guns are shot with execution-style elegance more often than they’re brought out a’ blazin’. Much of the carnage is offscreen. For Scarface fans, this will be a disappointment. But the simplicity of the script is more satisfying than, say, 2008’s lauded Gomorrah, whose overwhelming number of characters seem to have been fired into frame with T-shirt cannons, preventing any real development.

Munzi was able to mix some nonprofessional locals into the cast after living in Calabria for some time and cautiously gaining their trust. But it’s difficult to tell the pros from the amateurs: Everyone performs with the appropriate intensity of someone tiptoeing around land mines, and troubled looks—or, worse, fake grins—often express more than the minimal dialogue.

The film’s cinematography contrasts gorgeous shots of mountains and endless seas under sunshine with interiors that are dark and even rustic. (Munzi said he was inspired by Caravaggio; I was thinking Van Gogh.) The outdoor scenes make you breathe a little easier, but the tension never disappears completely.

Of course, a slaughter—though tasteful!—is saved for the finale, at the hands of an unlikely killer. The moral of the story would be well-directed toward, say, thespian couples who swear they won’t let their children pursue acting: The grown-ups can say what they will, but the kids will do as they want. It’s in their blood.

Black Souls opens April 17 at the Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax and Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market.