A transplanted Neapolitan in Belgium who works as a mafia enforcer mistakenly offs a rival clan boss’ sister and flees to France in “Pericle,” a sturdy character study that suffers from an over-reliance on 1st person voice-over. The Dardenne brothers are director Stefano Mordini’s godfathers in multiple ways: stylistically the film embraces Belgian neo-realism, it’s partly set in Liège, and the Dardenne are co-producers. Mordini has long been attracted to working class districts (“Steel,” “Provincia meccanica”) so that’s not new, but “Pericle” is a more mature work than his previous features, although the personality gap between the main character as seen on screen versus what’s heard in narration is naggingly large. Opening weekend in Italy brought in a respectable $110,000, while bookings beyond home territories will mostly come from Italian showcases.
Pericle (Riccardo Scamarcio) walks through life in a stupor, perfunctorily performing in cheap porn flicks but mostly acting as heavy to Don Luigi (Gigio Morra), capo of one of the two Italian crime families in Belgium. On the outside he’s lifeless, even when bopping the Don’s enemies on the noggin with plastic bags full of nails, but in his own head he’s considerably more verbal and emotive, weighed down by his orphan status and feeling disconnected from the world.
When he mistakenly kills the sister (Maria Luisa Santella) of Luigi’s rival, Pericle goes into hiding, first in a safe house (these scenes are especially dark and well-done) and then the French seaside, where he tries to pick up Anastasia (Marina Foïs) at a café. She’s unresponsive at first, but persistence pays off and in no time she’s brought him back to her apartment for a nice romp, even after learning that he has no current address.
It’s likely many viewers won’t buy Anastasia’s lightning-quick trust in a man who’s been sleeping in his car, especially since she’s got two kids – isn’t it odd that after one intimate encounter she leaves her boys in his care? Granted he turns on the charm when he’s with her – a charm not seen at other times – but still the near-instant trust remains a bothersome element in a film otherwise trying hard to balance realism with noir-ish moodiness. The idyll of course won’t last: there’s a darkness in Pericle’s personality, and when he realizes that Don Luigi has sold him out, he’s left to once again come to grips with a lifetime of issues revolving around family abandonment.
In classic noir fashion, Anastasia represents light and goodness with her beach-front apartment and two appealing kids, whereas Pericle, more comfortable inhabiting the night, comes from a darker place. His voice-overs reveal a tortured, vaguely self-aware personality not glimpsed in his outward form, which tends to be sullen and almost monosyllabic except with Anastasia. Through no fault of Scarmacio, who has the brooding intensity required of the role, the film fails to make these two sides of the character believable as one person, thereby hindering a sense of connection to this anti-hero.
Better captured is the sense of this Neapolitan underworld incongruously residing in a milieu definitely not its own. The camera functions as a captivated spectator, eyeing the world with a cautionary sense of mistrust, as if sticking close to the back of a character’s head ensures they won’t escape. Shots of Belgium’s depressing industrial landscape furthers the connection to the Dardenne vision while also looping back to Mordini’s working-class interests. Songs are pointedly used to reinforce mood, from the driving force of The Strypes’ “Get Into It” to Nina Simone’s plangent “Wild is the Wind.”