The Tale of King Crab (Alessio Rigo de Righi, Matteo Zoppis, Italy/France/Argentina)

By Jay Kuehner

“Folktales are real.”

—Italo Calvino

“People see things and talk. Even the rocks know.”

—Severino (Severino Sperandio), The Tale of King Crab

Where do stories begin, and how and why do they endure? In The Tale of King Crab, directors Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis expand and deflate, by slyly cinematic means, upon a tradition of racconti popolari and fiabe. The new century has seen the Italian folktale finding renewed fertility through cinema, with De Righi and Zoppis joining a growing chorus of mythogenic filmmakers (including Alice Rohrwacher, Pietro Marcello, Michelangelo Frammartino, Tizza Covi/Rainer Frimmel, and Simone Rapisarda Casanova) who are reckoning with the framing of memory. The most obvious precedent for their approach, Italo Calvino’s mid-century summation Italian Folktales, was itself indebted to the 16th-century The Facetious Nights of Straparola, which was in turn modelled on Boccaccio’s Decameron

The source of the tale for de Righi and Zoppis is grounded in the modest site of its telling. In this instance, that site is a hunting lodge in Tuscia outside Rome, the same location as their speculative documentary Il Solengo (2015). The community’s elders so central to that film appear to have moved on loquaciously from Mario, the boar-like hermit who was Il Solengo’s subject; they now tell the tale of Luciano (artist Gabriele Silli), the son of a town doctor in the late 19th century who came into conflict with a local prince who had locked the castle gate through which the town’s sheep might otherwise pass—but, as the elders sing, “With fire, fury, and a roar, he evened the score.” Popular verse will become a choral motif throughout the film, even as Vittorio Giampietro’s contrapuntal folk score serves as a strange ballad in its own right.  

The film’s very methodology implicitly questions the reliability of narrators and highlights the selective hearing of audiences; what is made clear is that we all contribute to the shape of the stories we tell. Somewhere amid the din of the elders’ conflicting or consenting voices, a narrative of questionable veracity is cobbled together that the film then proceeds to visualize. By revisiting the scenes from which the elders’ unofficial chronicle emanates, de Righi and Zoppis pry open the causal effects of narrative and reveal its mercurial mythmaking. 

In chapter one, which concerns our hero’s “misdeed” at the festival of Saint Orsio—i.e., the tragically unwitting torching of the castle gate—the Luciano we see is a drunkard, stumbling through town guzzling bottles of cheap wine, his clothes reduced to rags and his weathered face inhabited by an unkempt beard through which seemingly only a whistle can escape. He is also, however, a man of conviction: “I want to live as I please,” this dissolute son of privilege intones over a meal with the villagers, in a scene that reprises the fundamental social architecture of the gathering of elders at the film’s outset. This is a declaration with political as much as romantic overtones. In spite of being maligned as ill-suited to anything but the bottle, Luciano persists in his courtship of Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu, from Rohrwacher’s The Wonders [2014]), the beautiful daughter of local shepherd Severino (Severino Sperandio), who jealously but futilely attempts to block her requital. 

Folktales are often predicated more on misfortune than injustice, and derive their enduring appeal by making the didactic pleasurable, taking a less taut form than the strictly moral tale. Ill-fate inevitably occasions a subsequent quest for redemption, a trajectory that even the pariah refusenik Luciano—be he aristocrat, madman, or saint—cannot elude. The film’s first chapter is essentially a variation on the theme of popolo vs. nobili, but at its core it’s a love story between Luciano and Emma, a pastoral romance that unfolds mostly among the riverbank reeds, out of sight of the townsfolk’s disapproving gaze. When Emma consents to the prince’s invitation to the festival of the patron saint, Luciano takes it as a betrayal of principles; Severino, meanwhile, has put a bounty on Luciano for fear he might steal away with his daughter (but is oblivious to her endangerment at the hands of the cloddish carabinieri). 

Luciano’s culminating act of defiance against the prince banishes him from his beloved, his extradition to avoid prison casting him to the “arsehole of the world” (actual title, chapter two), across the Atlantic in remotest Tierra del Fuego. Here, the oral recitation of Luciano’s tale by the elders halts, as the tellers know little about his subsequent life beyond the fact of his exile to Argentina. Instead, the film proceeds to revive him in an act of extravagant hypothesis, placing him in a savage and majestic landscape in which a Spanish sailing vessel full of Incan gold has run aground. Luciano has seemingly been reincarnated as a Salesian priest named Antonio (sober now, and with beard roughly shorn) with covetous designs on the treasure, but his identity turns out to be a guise (as with much of the film, there are stories within stories). Effectively morphing into a Western, like some lost Monte Hellman film as imagined by Lisandro Alonso, in its second chapter The Tale of King Crab indulges in genre as it continues the chronicle of the fundamentally mysterious fate of its antihero. 

Such a formal conceit could easily descend into mere pastiche if not for both the undercurrent of melancholy and the formal rigour with which de Righi and Zoppis render nature, which together hint at immanence amid the absurdity. Perhaps, like the patron saint of Orsio, Luciano is condemned to wander the earth in some unspoken act of pilgrimage and atonement; or maybe he’s only in it for the gold, scouring the harsh terrain in search of his own El Dorado that lies cached at the bottom of a mountain lake—a bounty that he seeks to divine with the help of the film’s eponymous crab, ceremoniously plucked from a barrel. “The crab is our compass, and I am the map,” he intones to a cabal of mutinied sailors who’ve taken him captive, though the gravitas of that declaration is immediately dashed by the ensuing sight gag of the vermillion crustacean inching interminably along a patch of emerald earth, an object lesson in inertia. (Consider the cangrejo.)

That men seek salvation like a crab seeks water is one risible existential punchline to this myth in perpetual media res. The diary of a (now-dead) country priest—taken from his breast pocket just before the dying man whispered his final words to Luciano—is full of tales that inform Luciano’s journey, containing the lore of the crab’s wisdom transmitted by local “savages” who, to pass along their knowledge, ”told funny stories with a moral that were entertaining and educational.” The same could be said of de Righi and Zoppis’ own golden construct, which one would be foolish to take as literal rather than figurative. To find its treasure, one must know how to wait, and be willing to not know what one is looking for.

Folktales never go out of fashion because they never cease to speak of our predicament. The Tale of King Crab is curious as its story functions as its own kind of mise en abymeit’s at once an homage to and a parody of the folktale tradition, taking its own supple shape as both a source of serious consideration and an inventive departure. To be abandoned is to be found, our carapace cracked, alone at the mercy of nature’s absolute and arbitrary power. It may be better to travel hopefully than to arrive, perhaps, but to invoke wise words whose origins remain obscure, “you may have to travel hopelessly and never arrive.” That Luciano’s fate will have been foretold, not by a crustacean but rather in a fervid dream by Emma, ultimately gives her the last word in a tale enchanted by the infinite act of telling.