One of the quirks of humanity is that we’ve always told stories, long before we had written language, and regardless of whether they’re faithful tellings. As one character in The Tale of King Crab puts it, “People tell the story, but it starts off with ten words, but then fifteen and fifty get passed down…who knows what’s true or not?”
Italian-American filmmakers Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis explore the nature of storytelling in their latest work, following the tale of Luciano from lovelorn drunk to treasure seeker. But in addition to the story, the framework around Luciano’s story is key; we open on a group of aging men vibrantly swapping stories over the dinner table in modern-day Italy. One of them sings a song about the legend of Luciano, another inquires about his fate, and then we’re off—cut to a title card for “Chapter 1.”
Told in two halves, The Tale of King Crab is as much about the act of storytelling as it is more character-focused themes of yearning and hubris. The first segment shows us Luciano’s largely aimless life in a small Italian village. He drinks his days away and courts the beautiful Emma, before committing an act of rebellion that leads to tragedy. Chapter 2 begins with a group of men searching for lost gold in Tierra del Fuego— the connection between the two stories is not initially apparent, and figuring it out is half the fun.
The nineteenth-century village of the first half of the film is stunningly realized, both in the period set design and the wonderfully lazy, pastoral imagery of rolling hills and distant flocks of sheep. It truly feels like a renaissance painting come to life. That idyllic setting is juxtaposed with the tragic circumstance that befalls our protagonist, and it also contrasts sharply with the locale of the second half of the film. The terrain of the South American archipelago Tierra del Fuego couldn’t be more different from the Italian countryside, though its harsh, craggy mountains and perpetually gray skies are no less beautiful to look at. The landscapes, in both locations, are absolutely one of the biggest strengths of this film.
Another arresting visual in The Tale of King Crab is the crab itself, which becomes an important plot point in addition to a key part of the film’s symbolism. The story begins takes on a mythic quality, reaching a point of universality, like all good folktales do. Luciano isn’t just Luciano, he’s everyone that ever felt a sense of ennui about living a small life and wanted to do something about it. As Emma laments early in the film, “Time goes by and I don’t even notice. I’ve always been here.” The crab then becomes a stand-in for human longing, for hope, for wanting to achieve something against the odds, or perhaps it stands for obsession and hubris. Luciano’s crab is both his religion and his white whale.
All the events of the film unfold in the most minimal, stripped down way imaginable. Filmmaking so gorgeous was never so unassuming; the images on screen somehow feel both meticulously crafted and as if they were captured by accident. And, remarkably, the meta elements about stories within stories are also communicated visually in a few moments. The opening segment of old men swapping stories over a meal is repeated just a few minutes later, but this time within one of the stories, hundreds of years earlier. The characters within the story tell stories of their own, and we see these sub-stories acted out as well.
Directors Righi and Zoppis apparently first heard the legend of Luciano from storytellers much like those depicted in the film’s opening, though they freely admit they expanded the story significantly and creatively closed gaps they couldn’t fill in with research. Their previous film Il Solengo was inspired by the same group of hunters trading folk tales and carrying on the oral tradition of storytelling the directors so love to explore. It’s unique ground for filmmakers to cover, and surprisingly fertile. The Tale of King Crab takes us on an expedition across years and continents, proving an inventive, thematically fruitful, and visually beautiful retelling of Luciano’s tale.
After playing Cannes 2021, The Tale of King Crab opens today in limited release