The quintessential American expression of this tradition is John Huston's masterpiece The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, though there are countless lesser versions. With their new film, Fiorile, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani give us the Italian take.
Or, more precisely, the Tuscan take. Fiorile sets a cycle of three folk legends, about a family cursed by its acquisition of a fortune in gold, into a modern context. The writers/directors claim to have heard them from their mother during their childhood.
The frame for the stories is contemporary. To pass the time on a long road trip, a father (Lino Capolicchio) amuses his wife and two children by telling them the local legend of the curse on his family, the Benedetti--the Blessed." As he traces its origin to the Napoleonic invasion of Italy, we flash back to those days. A handsome, young French soldier (Michael Vartan) who is assigned to guard a chest of gold coins abandons it to make love to a local peasant woman he's met (Galatea Ranzi). Unbeknown to either of the lovers, the woman's brother (Claudio Bigagli) takes advantage of the diversion to steal the chest.
Not surprisingly, this ends up rather badly for the young couple. But there's an offspring from their union, of course, and so the retribution against the brother is put off for a generation, when it's enacted by the couple's descendants. Part two of the father's trilogy takes place in 1903, when the Benedetti, now known to the Tuscans as the Maladetti--the Cursed"--are living in wealth, and self-consciously trying to behave like the Medici. An aspiring politician (Bigagli again) plots to get rid of the lover of his sister (Ranzi again), and when she gets wise to what he's done, she takes a grim revenge.
This woman's grandson (as an adult, Vartan again) turns out to be the hero of part three, which takes place during the early 40s. He's a handsome partisan against the fascists and, for him, the curse takes its most ironic twist--a stroke of providential good fortune which forever besmirches his honor. He turns out to be the father of the narrator, and it is he, now a creepy old man (Renato Carpentieri), to whom the family is being brought for a visit, for the first time.
These are all good yarns, and the Tavianis--best known for Padre Padrone and The Night of the Shooting Stars--have the right touch for them. They've shown an interest in this sort of material before, most notably with their 1985 film Kaos, which dramatized several Pirandello tales.
The Tavianis aren't very concerned with psychological realism, and these sorts of stories don't warrant it; their truths are broad-stroke, emblematic. But they're human truths, nevertheless.
The best thing about Fiorile is that the Tavianis don't play it cute. They suffuse the stories--especially the first two, which benefit from their historical remoteness--with a no-kidding, cross-yourself-and-spit-on-the-ground Italian respect and awe for curses and other things portentous (Ranzi, in her dual role, embodies this quality impressively).
The transitional devices the directors employ to weave the frame story in and out of the father's narrative are admirable, and not just because they're tricky and clever. They also help create the sense of the unchanging nature of the Italian countryside so essential to the effectiveness of the tales. However, the least satisfying element of the film is the resolution of the frame story, which seems poorly thought out. Yet even this has the merit of not being quaint or sentimental, of not letting the modern world off the curse's hook. We're meant to feel Fiorile, not merely to observe it anthropologically.
The title, by the way, is the affectionate name given by the soldier to the peasant woman, after the name for the month of May on the proposed calendar of the French Revolution. The hint of rebirth and renewal this implies is yet another thematic layer the Tavianis add to the film, which, for all its brooding, isn't depressing. This may be what the filmmakers are getting at, in fact--that curses can only exist where love exists, and that even for the cursed, life goes on.