The code of silence is about to be broken in Fabio Mollo’s “South Is Nothing,” an intimate, visually striking peek at the destructive nature of the Italian South’s stifling Mafia-derived atmosphere of fear. Focusing on an angry teenage tomboy and her inability to process her brother’s death, the pic looks great, but its hyper-charged mood is impossibly tense and the script can scarcely breathe: Whispered stories, half-hidden motivations and permanent jitteriness are so forced that they drain the characters of three-dimensionality, reducing “South” to an attractive package with an overwrought core. Life outside fests will be slow going.

With her gaze fixed in a permanent state of wounded fury, Grazia (Miriam Karlkvist), 17, is far removed from the grace her first name denotes. She’s also rid herself of any trace of femininity and can easily pass as a boy. Widowed father Cristiano (Vinicio Marchioni) has a salt-cod shop in Reggio Calabria, but for reasons never explained, the local mob wants him to sell up and move out, shutting off supplies to ensure he leaves.

Sometime earlier, Grazia’s older brother, Pietro (Giorgio Musumeci) died, but neither her father nor her grandmother (Alessandra Costanzo) will talk about what happened, registering on a micro level the walls of silence, both enforced and self-imposed, that allow the region’s Mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, to maintain its influence over all areas of life. When Grazia thinks she sees Pietro in the distance, she becomes convinced he’s still alive.

The possibility of something, or someone, to relieve the straitjacketing intensity comes when Grazia meets Carmelo (Andrea Bellisario, the only actor allowed to inject a welcome note of relaxed equability). Cristiano, always on the verge of breakdown, might also have a steam-letting relationship with neighboring shop owner Bianca (Valentina Lodovini in a small role), but neither of them can get beyond his suffocating inability to speak what’s on his mind.

No one makes an inconsequential statement, or casts a glance that isn’t overladen with meaning. Instead, “South Is Nothing” is full of Grandma-whispered lines like, “If you don’t talk about things, they can’t hurt you.” Yes, we get it. Not clear at all, however, is how Pietro died, and why Grazia is so male-identified when she’s clearly heterosexual. Is she being the boy of the family because her brother died? If so, the transition needs to be at least hinted at rather than ignored.

Were there something to puncture the unrelenting anxiety, then Mollo’s strategy of not revealing everything could have paid off. His assertion that the ‘Ndrangheta’s oppressive hold reaches into the very bosom of the family, crushing the South in its grip, is necessary, yet a bit of modulation would have made a greater impact. Karlkvist, recipient of a Shooting Star award at this year’s Berlinale, gives a fearless perf whose one-note intensity is entirely the script’s fault; a moment of relief comes when she dances with Carmelo at an empty carnival, and unsurprisingly, it’s the pic’s most sustainable scene.

On a more positive note, the eye-catching lensing confirms the helmer’s visual acumen and suggests that, with a better screenplay, he’ll make something meaningful and artistically bold. Grazia’s affinity for water results in impressionistic underwater shots, and sensitivity to textures reveals itself in sensual closeups that do more to suggest complexity than the looks of suffering haunting every face.

Film Review: ‘South Is Nothing’

<p>Reviewed online, Rome, Feb. 20, 2014. (Also in Berlin Film Festival — Generation 14plus; 2013 Toronto, Rome film festivals.) Running time: <b>86 MIN</b>. Original title: “Il sud e niente”</p>

  • Production: <p>(Italy-France) A Luce Cinecitta (in Italy) release of a B24 Film, Madakai production, in collaboration with Rai Cinema, with the participation of Cofinova 9, Giubileo. (International sales: Doc & Film, Paris.) Produced by Jean Denis Le Dinahet, Sebastien Msika.</p>
  • Crew: <p>Directed by Fabio Mollo. Screenplay, Mollo, Josella Porto. Camera (color, HD), Debora Vrizzi; editor, Filippo Montemurro; music, Giorgio Giampa; production designer, Giovanna Cirianni; costume designer, Andrea Cavalletto; sound, Piero Fancellu, Edouard Morin; line producer, Sebastien Msika; associate producer, Vincenzo de Leo de Francesco; assistant director, Federico Nuti.</p>
  • With: <p>Vinicio Marchioni, Miriam Karlkvist, Valentina Lodovini, Andrea Bellisario, Alessandra Costanzo, Giorgio Musumeci, Francesco Colella, Peppe Piromalli, Maria Luppino, Maria Gurnari, Daniele Balicco. (Italian dialogue)</p>