Cannes 2021 review: The Tale of King Crab (Alessio Rigo de Righi & Matteo Zoppis)

Towards the beginning of The Tale of King Crab a group of hunters in contemporary Italy gather in a cabin and begin to discuss the titular story. One of them refers to it as a ‘dark tale’, which establishes a sense of foreboding danger from the very first moment. With this bold assertion directors Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis pique our interest and immerse us into the past, constructing an unconventional version of an adventure film centering on Luciano, a complex anti-hero being exiled from society after he kills his lover. Luciano goes in search for the elusive ‘King Crab’ who harbours the secret to the location of a coveted treasure, which is used as a facilitator for some profound social commentary. Grandeur intermingles with a deranged portrayal of the carnivalesque side of human nature, following our inherent desire to challenge anything we consider to be stifling to our liberty, which can eventually result in the loss of our freedom as a whole. Spectacularly well-constructed and told with an equal balance of acerbic cynicism and otherworldly mystique, The Tale of King Crab is a tremendously compelling journey into the past, formed around cherished cultural conventions that the directors effectively deconstruct in an effort to convey the deeper message at the heart of the film.

The film has its roots in the legacy of oral traditions and their role in shaping a culture. Early in the film the hunters who serve as the narrators remark on how this story has been passed down generations. Folklore serves many purposes, one of them being that it informs our perception of reality, teaching lessons through abstract situations. The introduction of the story at the heart of the film as a dark tale already indicates that this is going to be a more sinister version of the fairytales many of us grew up with, and that it, through taking a cue from revisionist tales, will use the more bleak subject matter as a means to explore the human condition in further detail. Occurring in the ambiguous space between history and mythology, The Tale of King Crab is formed through the collision of the imagery of a traditional fable, combined with darker, more critical intentions of a scathing social critique, proving that even the most far-fetched stories harbour some unimpeachable truths about a culture’s past, far more so than many historical texts. Presenting us with a wildly inventive illustration of history, and told through two distinct acts (separated by both visual scope and a very particular tonal shift), this film is an engrossing voyage into the surreal recesses of days gone by.

Madness exudes from every frame of this film, especially in the later moments when the main character succumbs to the insanity brewing inside of him as a result of his exile. The Tale of King Crab is initially quite a difficult film to decode – the filmmaking is gorgeous, but the storytelling is intentionally peculiar. However, we soon learn that there is method to the madness, and the dreamlike qualities of the film only serve to immerse us into a more challenging version of the past, one that is recognizable but where reality is slightly off-kilter. The film is anchored by the spirited performance given by Gabriele Silli, whose complex anti-hero Luciano is absolutely spellbinding, the actor deftly engaging with the blend of genres. Whether it be in the moments where it takes the form of an absurdist parable, sobering social commentary or bleak psychological thriller, Silli commands the screen. In both the period setting (evoked through absolutely stunning cinematography and gorgeous production design that situates us in the midst of the 19th century), or in the development of the bevy of characters, the motivations behind this film are well-formed and complex, the attention to detail on both sides of the camera setting The Tale of King Crab apart from many similarly-themed historical adventures.

The two most prominent themes that recur throughout The Tale of King Crab are defiance and redemption, which is reflected in how the film structures the story around two clear acts. Both sides of the story are incredibly meaningful since the first act is centred around breaking through the banality of pastoral life in the form of one man’s refusal to succumb to draconian policies of an unseen, despotic prince, while the second is about reclaiming his place in the world after being exiled from society. The film is an allegory, but it uses these conventions as a way of demonstrating the tendency of these stories to recreate the past as a means to change the narrative. Filled with images that could feasibly be plucked from the most archaic folktales. such as an emphasis on a vaguely anthropomorphic crab that serves as the key to unlocking the mysteries at the heart of the saga, the film proves that there is a multitude of different ways to tell the same story. The framing device of the film is focused on the fact that each of the narrators has varying accounts of the story, the specific details taking it to different places, and ultimately impacting the eventual destination of the main character. The success or failure he finds on this metaphysical journey resides in the particular speaker, as does his status as either a dashing hero or maniacal villain. The film focuses on the process of reforming one’s narrative through going in search of redemption, as evident in the second act of the film consisting almost entirely of outsiders who have been exiled from society, doing whatever it takes to assimilate back into civilization, or risk becoming yet another casualty of an existential wasteland.

Midway through the film, the narrators debate on the actual events of the tale, with one of them bluntly remarking that “in the end, the story is not entirely true“, and it ultimately does not matter whether every detail is accurate since time and shifting mentalities have weathered the reality of such a story. The purpose of a fable is not to reflect facts or relay the truth, but rather to convey a particular message. The search for King Crab’s oasis is used to represent a journey of atonement, and whether or not he reaches it is ambiguous and left up to the individual speaker who determines how they believe his journey ended, as well as the viewer who uses their own interpretation to resolve the vague ending. The Tale of King Crab is a well-composed, atmospheric masterpiece consisting of a series of carefully calculated moments, each one of them feeling essential to the message at the heart of the film. It is effectively divided into two chapters, each informing the other. The first is a story of defiance set in a pastoral village, the other a haunting existential odyssey that uses the wide-open spaces of the evocatively titled ‘culo al mondo‘, which serves as a different kind of prison, one that grows more wild and unwieldy the more one tries to escape. In both instances they present us with a motley crew of characters aimlessly wandering through the wilderness, trying to make their way into acceptable society while not having any clear direction of where the path is heading, both literally and metaphorically – and there are few instances of an allegory more appropriate to the modern world than this stark, unforgettable chronicle of humanity.