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An impressive first half isn’t sustained after the midpoint in Giuseppe Gagliardi’s “Tatanka.” Perhaps there are simply too many scripters (five) to keep things properly focused, yet this semi-factual story begins with a bang, turning a tough-kid boxing tale into a gritty expose of mafia-style criminality and endemic corruption in Italy’s Naples region. But when the pic shifts focus, it becomes just another fight story with ill-defined characters. Despite its flaws, however, “Tatanka” reps a solid sophomore outing for Gagliardi and rising d.p. Michele Paradisi. Smaller fests should take note; locally, opening weekend figures were just decent.

Publicity heavily emphasizes the pic’s base material, derived from hard-hitting author Roberto Saviano, of “Gomorrah” fame. Like the earlier book and Matteo Garrone’s homonymous film, “Tatanka” is set in the Camorra-ridden areas around Naples, where kids idolize gangsters and prison is merely a rite of passage. Saviano’s interest is less boxing per se and more the idea of passing through a crucible by which a person becomes not merely a fighter, but a fighter for what’s right. Gagliardi seems to be on the same wavelength, until the signals become fuzzy.

“Tatanka,” as one might remember from “Dances With Wolves,” is a Lakota Sioux word for bison, and here reps the nickname given champion boxer Clemente Russo, making a praiseworthy thesping debut playing a character partly based on himself. An excellent opening long shot of a housing project is jolted by gunfire, followed by an exciting chase as cops pursue Michele (Lorenzo Scialla) and Rosario (Vincenzo Pane). The teens hide in a boxing gym, but eventually are brought to the police station for questioning about a cop killing.

Gagliardi and his fellow scripters nail the atmosphere within the precinct in a series of superbly edited shots, where diffident young men stick to a code of silence while the cops think nothing of brutalizing suspects. Michele needs money and returns to the gym, where manager Sabatino (Giorgio Colangeli) recognizes his star possibilities — if the teen can turn his rage and power into technique.

Michele however is easily swayed by criminally minded Rosario, and he’s busted as an accessory to robbery and murder. Eight years later, Michele (now played by Clemente Russo) is sprung and tries to stay clean, but Rosario (Carmine Recano) and his mobster boss Salvatore (Raiz) want him to throw a match. Michele refuses and flees to Berlin, though working as a bartender for g.f. Petra (Susanne Wolff) doesn’t cut it, and he starts training with coach Vinko (Rade Serbedzija).

For Michele’s first match, Gagliardi shoots the fight using bursts of close-ups in rapid-fire edits that concentrate on the energy rather than the blows, and he manages to make the boxing scene feel fresh — a considerable achievement. Subsequent scenes in the ring are less creative, though always well shot. The pic’s main problem is an unexplained switch in Michele’s psyche: at the start, he uses his fists to release his anger, fighting as a reaction to his environment. Once out of the slammer, he fights because that’s all he knows, yet somewhere along the way, the script wants auds to believe boxing is a calling whose urge, contrary to logic, he cannot resist.

Further hampering a smooth narrative are characters, including Petra and a German female boxer, given brief scenes and zero development. By the finale, it’s become clear that Gagliardi, talented as he is, wants to have it all, cramming in redemption plus the inescapability of the past into the final minutes. The helmer’s sources, including “Raging Bull,” are spot-on; he just needs to pay more attention to development.

Thesping is uniformly strong, including the bull-necked Russo, whose sullen demeanor is tailor-made for Michele — or is it vice versa? Highest praise goes to lenser Paradisi and editor Simone Manetti, who’ve done a terrific job in giving the pic a jaunty, even dangerous feel that’s exactly right for the locales. Music samples, from Vincenzo Bellini to Eric Satie, are unexpected yet somehow work despite not quite fitting in. Most characters speak in Neapolitan dialect, requiring Italian subtitles.

Tatanka

Italy

  • Production: A Bolero Film release of a Margherita Film, Minerva Film production, in collaboration with Rai Cinema. Produced by Gianluca Curti. Directed by Giuseppe Gagliardi. Screenplay, Maurizio Braucci, Gagliardi, Massimo Gaudioso, Salvatore Sansone, Stefano Sardo, based on a chapter in the book La Bellezza e l'Inferno by Roberto Saviano.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Michele Paradisi; editor, Simone Manetti; music, Peppe Voltarelli; production designer, Antonio Farina; costume designer, Fiorenza Cipollone; sound (Dolby Digital), Vito Martinelli; associate producer, Francesca Manno; assistant director, Stefania Girolami; casting, Marita D'Elia. Reviewed at Cinema Fiamma, Rome, May 8, 2011. Running time: 99 MIN.
  • With: With: Clemente Russo, Rade Serbedzija, Giorgio Colangeli, Carmine Recano, Susanne Wolff, Raiz, Sascha Zacharias, Damir Todorovic, Claudia Ruffo, Lorenzo Scialla, Vincenzo Pane, Luisa Di Natale, Enzo Casertano, Luis Molteni. (Italian, English, German dialogue)
  • Music By: