Organised Italian crime has made for a treasured, somewhat romanticised cinematic stomping ground, etched into the fabric of the gangster genre. However where some filmmakers glorify the shady, criminal underworld, ramping up the melodrama and stylistic tendencies in an overt, distinctively Hollywoodised manner, Francesco Munzi’s Black Souls seeks only in highlighting the bleak, gritty nature to this harrowing vocation, thriving in realism and desolation. Though for all of the positives on show, this endeavour is neither as compelling nor profound as Matteo Garrone’s similarly unforgiving, portentous Gomorrah.

This tale centres around the Calabrian equivalent of the Mafia – the ‘Ndrangheta, which is where we meet the prosperous drug dealer Luigi (Marco Leonardi), thriving to maintain a sense of fear and respect for his family name, following the untimely murder of his father. His calculated, discerning brother Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) favours a less violent approach, while the oldest of three brothers Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane) disregards this way of life altogether, opting to live peacefully on his farm. However when the latter’s son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo) shows himself to have more in common with Luigi than that of his father, following some trouble back home he sets off to join his two uncles – but with his idealistic views for the family business and inclination to impress Luigi, he brings that trouble along with him, which threatens to lead on to disruptive and potentially harmful consequences.

The fitting title of this picture is emblematic of the reprehensible individuals who inhabit this landscape. What transpires is a humourless, sombre affair which can be accused, in parts, of being almost too dour and forbidding. Munzi enjoys playing with the perceptions of the viewer too, as a film that bears a few false starts, pensively building, and taking a while before the narrative unfolds. Lulling you into a false sense of security, Black Souls initially appears to be a conventional mob story, to then come across more as a tale of an impressionable youngster, groomed into a life of crime. But Munzi turns this on its head once more – which is probably for the best, given both The Godfather and Goodfellas have revelled in the latter theme, and thrived significantly.

As a result, however, Black Souls is without focus, wanting to have its panettone and eat it. Rather than have one, clear protagonist and use their perspective to form and craft our own – instead we take an omniscient view. But we’re without a palpable sense of direction, which would help create an emotional connection with the characters, something this title is severely lacking in. It’s essential to form an allegiance with the protagonists, and while fully aware of their flaws, and terrified of their violent tendencies and cold-bloodedness – at the same time you should be able to find a closeness with them, to want the best for them. But not in this case you don’t – as you feel so little warmth or empathy for the trio of brothers, proving to be detrimental to proceedings, and cutting off any investment with their cause.

On a more positive note, the lack of violence on show in absorbing and striking, as Munzi manages to tell his story and convey intensity and anxiety without the need for any excess, gratuitous conflict, which arguably takes more skill. The idyllic, Calabrian countryside helps too, though within this coastal paradise lies a dark and disturbing tale, inhabited with dark and disturbing individuals. This is emblematic of a picture that is never quite as it appears, with a knack of consistently surprising you. Munzi is sure we never go down the path we had expected to take, which can only ever be a good thing.