Closer in spirit to "The Godfather Part III" than "The Sopranos," the Mafia family in Antonio Capuano's "Red Moon" is a bloodthirsty tribe of assassins who listen to classic local music (like the song that gives film its title) and talk like foul-mouthed versions of characters out of a Greek play.

Closer in spirit to “The Godfather Part III” than “The Sopranos,” the Mafia family in Antonio Capuano’s “Red Moon” is a bloodthirsty tribe of assassins who listen to classic local music (like the song that gives film its title) and talk like foul-mouthed versions of characters out of a Greek play. Pic’s parallel between the legend of Agamemnon and his children Orestes and Electra and the Neapolitan Camorra may prove too much of a stretch for many viewers, and its pitch too shrill to bear for nearly two straight hours. Yet the film vaunts a startling boldness of style and moral urgency that separates it from the crowd. Easy to admire, it is tough to slip into, as there is not a single character to like. Critical support and festival play could open up the kind of cult audiences that it needs to work abroad, where the subject is of evergreen interest.

In his third feature, Capuano confirms the free-thinking, face-the-truth approach of “Pianese Nunzio, 14 in May,” whose frank treatment of a priest’s affection for an altar boy from Naples’ lower depths caused a scandal. Apart from the pic’s epic ambitions, the great merit of “Luna” lies in its portrayal of the Mafia as one big pile of stinking rot — an insight that so often gets lost in movies that focus on the characters’ personal dramas, or flashy gangland killings and police operations. Here the evil really does go beyond individuals, and their punishment is not human but divine.

The Cammaranos are introduced in disquieting flashes as the news spreads that they have dealt a rival Camorra family a death blow. They gloat over their enemy’s losses, much greater than their own. The aging padrino, Tony (scary Italo Celoro), keeps a ferocious black panther caged in his room, and exhibits his taste (the whole family is painfully vulgar) in an oil painting of two horses mating. Copulation and killing are the two basic rules of survival for the Cammaranos, who are ruthless masters at both.

Tony’s son Amerigo (a finely uncertain Tony Servillo) runs the business these days, chafing under his father’s bit. He has stopped sleeping with wife Irene (Licia Maglietta) and brought a young lover (Lucia Ragni) to live with him in the house. In the midst of all the murder and mayhem, this seems like a minor infraction.

His teenage daughter Orsola (edgy young Antonia Truppo), the film’s Electra figure with a bit of Antigone thrown in, is a scornful dissenter who keeps her distance from their doings, while son Oreste (handsome, sulking Domenico Balsamo) expresses his frustration by slashing his body with razors.

After Orsola insists on burying her sister, who was killed in the shootout, she is sent away to grow up. Oreste also bows out of the picture, which becomes ever more gruesome. When his men slay a child, Amerigo has a moment of doubt, but Tony’s taunting puts his conscience to rest. He breaks the old man’s neck and assumes the reins of power, until he too is unseated.

Irene, as played by the dazzling Maglietta (the runaway housewife of “Bread and Tulips”), is a murderess vamp whose emotional range runs from hatred to jealousy. She takes her husband’s ice-hearted henchman Egidio (Antonino Iuorio) as her lover and plots a palace coup, but Egidio prefers Orsola. Irene waits calmly for a chance to bed her self-destructive son Oreste.

Playing the story with all stops out, Capuano makes one serious error in failing to modulate its strident tone and give a rhythm to the drama. In the end the long series of shocking crimes, each one topping the last, becomes numbingly repetitive, undercutting the powerful originality of film’s earlier parts.

Script’s continual nods to Greek drama work surprisingly well, with the theatrical dialogue tripping the characters up only once or twice. Even an over-the-top dream sequence of Oreste wandering naked around a Greek temple fits into pic’s baroque philosophy.

The story is told in brief snatches in scenes shot with a bare minimum of decor and an eerie lack of background sounds, apart from some finely chosen period recordings. Tommaso Borgstrom’s dramatic lighting, playing off the colors red and black, heightens the frightening atmosphere. Also notable are the costumes designed by Metella Raboni (Irene’s wigs color-coordinated to her dresses are unforgettable) and Paolo Petti’s very effective use of minimal interiors to create a suffocating feeling of oppression.

Red Moon

Italy

Production

A Dania Film/Vip Media release (in Italy) of a Poetiche Cinematografiche production. (International sales: Poetiche Cinematografiche, Rome.) Produced by Andrea De Liberato. Directed, written by Antonio Capuano.

Crew

Camera (color), Tommaso Borgstrom; editor, Luciana Pandolfelli; music, Lelio De Tullio; production designer, Paolo Petti; costume designer, Metella Raboni; sound (Dolby SRD), Mario Iaquone; special effects, Giovanni Colantuono. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing, Venezia 58), Sept. 6, 2001. Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Antonino - Carlo Cecchi
Irene - Licia Maglietta
Amerigo - Tony Servillo
Egidio - Antonino Iuorio
Orsola - Antonia Truppo
Oreste - Domenico Balsamo
Tony - Italo Celoro
With: Antonio Pennarella, Enzo Romano, Susy del Giudice, Lucia Ragni.
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