Streaming Review

The Tale of King Crab review – visually sumptuous and quixotic anti-western

Taking their cues from Herzog, Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis deliver a spectacular tale about an ill-fated treasure hunt

Set in two locations at the tail end of the 19th century – the sunny Italian fields of Vejano, and the raw wilderness of Tierra del Fuego, at the very southern tip of Argentina and Chile – The Tale of King Crab begins as a story recounted by a group of elderly villagers, who tell of a famous local figure from way before their time. This man is Luciano (Gabriele Silli), a goatherder made upset after a prince decides to shut the gates to his castle, blocking a useful shortcut. Increasingly irate, Luciano lashes out and commits arson. As punishment, he is banished to Tierra del Fuego.

It’s here that the locals lose track of the story, as the narrative of the film’s second half – featuring a “king crab” who can supposedly lead our protagonist to a lake which holds vast treasures – fully embraces the air of a tall tale. Though the film's two halves are vastly different, what remains consistent is the entrancing quality of its lighting: this may mark the fiction feature debut for directorial duo Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis, but it's absolutely cinematographer Simone D'Arcangelo's film.

Shooting on what looks like analogue film stock, there’s a particularly ethereal quality to the way D'Arcangelo captures the light. The first half has a hazy nostalgic look, with the warm Italian sun overpowering the skies and piercing through the interiors of musty taverns and peasant shacks. In the overcast, foggy world of Tierra del Fuego, however, the light is flattened and cast evenly across faces. Huge distances are suddenly made to look two-dimensional, hinting towards the sense of endlessness that’s part of the region’s edge-of-the-world atmosphere.

The film has the feel of an old photo, half-remembered by its owner, suitable for a disjointed, quixotic shaggy dog story that's also in tune with the film’s focus on the writing of history through muddied anecdotes and local folklore. It also feels like a meeting between Werner Herzog’s stories of colonialist follies (Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God) and Ermano Olmi's The Legend of the Holy Drinker, as gently surreal and circular a tale as was ever told about purgatorial suffering, with Lucrecia Martel’s Zama thrown in for good measure, though with an even greater emphasis on the listlessness of 19th century colonial activity.

The film emerges as a devoutly revisionist anti-western, the story never quite finding its home in generic formula. Even a near-climactic gunfight is played with clumsiness by the actors, as if trying to fight the spectacular cinematography as it finds ways to include both fighters across vast distances within the same frame. The traditional adventurer’s search for gold – as well as the traditional quest for the fair maiden’s hand – is played as fractured and unfulfilled, told by someone unsure of where the story is going.

As a result, nothing in The Tale of King Crab ever quite resolves, and that’s key to the film’s unique charm. This is a spectacular fiction debut that ruminates long in the mind.

The Tale of King Crab is streaming on MUBI from 21 April.

Where to watch

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