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‘The Tale of King Crab’ Review: An Art-Film Treasure Hunt

In the Italian town of Vejano, local hunters gather to share stories rich enough to inspire movies. Over the past decade, filmmakers Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis have been dutifully documenting these sessions — some fact-based, others blurring the lines of reality — translating them to screen via films that entertain, while also testing what audiences might believe. The first two, “Belva Nera” (about a black panther sighting) and “Il Solengo” (focused on an enigmatic recluse), were fashioned as nonfiction portraits, but the latest legend proved fanciful enough to call for a more narrative approach. And thus, “The Tale of King Crab” was born.

Debuting in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes last summer, this surprising account of a curious cross-continental quest already feels timeless, like one of Pasolini’s classic allegorical films (“The Arabian Nights”) or Alice Rohrwacher’s more recent, loosely fact-based “Happy as Lazzaro.” It’s an old-fashioned literary fable, spiked with shots of grimacing men with sunburned faces blasting one another with shotguns that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sergio Leone movie. The cast is mostly composed of nonprofessionals from the area, and though the acting style may seem stilted to American eyes, it fits squarely in the tradition of Italian art cinema, closer to recognizable human behavior than the more mannered acting technique we’re accustomed to.

Our protagonist is an outcast named Luciano, played by Gabriele Silli — not an actor, but a sculptor who spends most of his time crafting great big fibrous monsters with molten skin. The camera loves this lanky, unkempt figure, who looks the way a young Donald Sutherland might, if he’d had all the wear and tear (and runaway beard) of a far-older Donald Sutherland forced upon him. This suits the character well: Luciano comes from aristocratic stock, but is a drunkard who flirts with Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the local goat farmer’s daughter, and picks fights with the prince’s soldiers, for which he receives a blast of buckshot to the gut.

It takes a bit of time to figure out where the hunters’ story is headed, as directors de Righi and Zoppis call upon Silli to reenact scenes of this idle, vaguely Don Quixote-like character stirring up trouble. (They’ve chosen what appears to be a late-19th-century period in which to set the story, though if it weren’t for the peculiar class dynamics and the mention of a prince, it could be contemporary.) Instead of jousting at windmills, Luciano has made an adversary of a heavy wooden door that blocks his path, ramming himself against it like an aggravated bull.

Luciano is angry, but at what, it’s not altogether clear. At the local bar, he gives away his money, saying, “It’s worthless to me. I want to live as I please.” Even Luciano’s father no longer understands his seemingly self-destructive son. Here is a man in search first of meaning, then romance and eventually redemption at the far ends of the earth. (The movie starts in Vejano, Italy, but winds up at a remote South American lagoon.) But it’s not until the final scene — in which a man who swore off wealth finds a fortune — that audiences discover the point of his treasure hunt.

Halfway through, the film switches languages from Italian to Spanish, and skips continents to “the asshole of the world” — remote Argentina, an extremity far lovelier than such a nickname implies, despite the fact that its waters are poisoned by algae and the spongy terrain looks almost Martian beneath their boots. A chapter break would make it easy to assume that Luciano’s story had ended and another had begun, with Silli now playing a different character, Father Antonio, but in time, the connection between the two will be made clear — as will the tale’s title.

The group of surly, bedraggled sailors have come in search of gold, said to be buried somewhere in the mountains. The trick to finding it involves using a spiny red crab as their compass: Born in the lake where the treasure is hidden, the crab will crawl back toward its home — a charming notion that demands a patience none of these double-crossing pirates possesses.

The closer the men get, the less trustworthy they become. And so we get a series of betrayals, culminating in a brutal and somewhat shocking shootout that’s a far more spectacular payoff than a film of this style typically delivers. But even without that climactic thrill, the scenery alone would have been worth the price of admission, as DP Simone D’Arcangelo elevates the somewhat grubby cinematography with shots of indescribable beauty. None can rival that final scene, as Luciano stands in the glimmering sun, as solitary as he first appeared to us, having found his life’s purpose at last.

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