‘The Tale of King Crab’ review: A movie art treasure hunt

In the Italian town of Vejano, local fishermen gather to share stories rich enough to inspire movies. Over the past decade, filmmakers Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis have faithfully documented these sessions — some based on facts, others blurring the lines of reality — translating them on screen via entertainment films, while also testing what audiences might think. The first two films, “Belva Nera” (about seeing a black panther) and “Il Solengo” (focusing on a mysterious reflection), were modeled on nonfiction images, but the last legend proved fictional enough to call for a more narrative approach. Thus the “King Crab Tale” was born.

First appearing in Directors’ Week in Cannes last summer, this surprising novel of a curious cross-continental quest already seems timeless, like one of Pasolini’s allegorical classics (“Arabian Nights”) or Alice Rohracher’s more recent, fact-based “Happy” as Lazaro. It’s an old-fashioned literary tale, filled with shots of peeling, sunburned men blasting each other with rifles that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sergio Leone film. Pretentious to American eyes, yet it fits perfectly in the tradition of Italian art cinema, it is closer to known human behavior than the more polite style of acting to which we are accustomed.

Our hero is an outcast named Luciano, played by Gabriel Seely – not an actor, but a sculptor who spends most of his time crafting large, molten-skinned fibrous monsters. The camera loves this skinny, unkempt figure, who looks like a young Donald Sutherland, if he has all the wear (and unruly beard) of an older Donald Sutherland imposed on him. He suits this character well: Luciano comes from an aristocratic dynasty, but he is a drunkard who flirts with Emma (Maria Alexandra Longo), the daughter of a local goat farmer, and gets into fights with the prince’s soldiers, for which he received a bullet impulse. Gut.

It takes a while to figure out where the story of the hunters is headed, as directors de Reggie and Zubis Seely have called on to re-enact the scenes of this idyllic, Don Quixote-like character who’s causing trouble. (They chose what appears to be the period of the late nineteenth century to put the story in, although had it not been for strange class dynamics and the mention of a prince, it might have been contemporary.) At the windmills, Luciano made an opponent out of a heavy wooden door blocking his path, bumping himself against him like a tense bull.

Luciano is angry, but it’s not entirely clear. At the local tavern, he gives his money away, saying, “I have no value. I want to live as I please.” Even Luciano’s father no longer seems to understand his self-destructive son. Here is a man who first searches for meaning, then romance and ultimately redemption in the ends of the earth. (The film begins in Vigano, Italy, but ends in a remote lake in South America.) But viewers only discover the purpose of his treasure hunt after the last scene – in which a man who has sworn his fortune finds a fortune.

Halfway through, the film switches from Italian to Spanish, transcending continents to “the fool of the world” – remote Argentina, the most beautiful end of what the title suggests, despite the fact that its waters are polluted with algae and the spongy terrain looks almost Martian under their boots. The chapter break would make it easy to assume that Luciano’s story is over and another story has begun, with Seely now playing a different character, Father Antonio, but over time, the relationship between the two will be clarified – as will the title of the tale.

The group of corrupt sailors came in search of gold, it was said that they were buried somewhere in the mountains. The trick to finding them involves using a red spiny crab as their compass: Born in the lake where the treasure is hidden, the crab will crawl back to its home – a charming idea that requires patience none of these pirates possess.

The closer the men are, the less confident they are. And so we’ve got a series of betrayals, culminating in a brutal and somewhat shocking shootout that’s a much more exciting bonus than a movie of this style usually offers. But even without the suspense, the scene alone was worth the price of admission, as DP Simone D’Arcangelo elevates the somewhat dystopian cinematography with shots of unspeakable beauty. No one can compete with this last scene, where Luciano stands in the twinkling sun, alone as he first appeared to us, having finally found his life’s purpose.


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