Inspired by a real-life feud within the Apulian mafia, Pippo Mezzapesa’s Ti mangio il cuore (Burning Hearts) is like a modern-day Romeo & Juliet: a forbidden love between members of two opposing families.
Andrea is the heir apparent for the Malatesta clan, whose patriarch Michele is the sole survivor from a massacre committed by the Camporeale family forty years earlier. Andrea falls for Marilena, the wife of Santo Camporeale, and mother of his two children. Andrea and Marilena begin an affair, initially in secret but are inevitably found out, on both sides.
In retaliation, the Camporeale family, to protect Santo’s honor, take out Michele Malatesta, leaving Andrea in charge and under the watchful eye and influence of his mother Teresa. To further complicate things, Marilena becomes pregnant with Andrea’s child, linking the two families further than either of them are prepared for. Just as Michele sought vengeance against those who wronged his family, decades earlier, Teresa eggs Andrea on to do the same – one by one, picking off the next generation of Camporeales.
As Andrea’s need for vengeance escalates, he grows more and more manic, with paranoid episodes and lashing out at everyone, including Marilena. He never approaches any kind of satisfaction or resolution, as he spirals out leading to an inevitable tragedy.
The love story between Marilena and Andrea is not so convincing – the movie seems to be too anxious to get going with the plot mechanics than to linger on developing their romance – but the most fascinating dynamics are between Marilena and her new mother-in-law Teresa. Marilena senses the tension and resentment from Teresa, as a married woman now seeing her son, and takes it in stride, going out of her way to keep room for her, even encouraging Andrea to dance with his mother at a party. Later in Marilena’s pregnancy, in return, Teresa is who cares for her, and assures her it’s a boy; but when the baby arrives, Teresa, helping with the delivery, hisses that the mother of her grandchild is a “whore.” It’s a deranged power dynamic, though Marilena, practically on the run from the Camporeale family, is not a woman equipped with many options.
The film’s portrayal of the mafia is also a unique one, both in its depiction of the mob life as well as how it’s conveyed, very bleakly, through formal elements. Set in the Gargano Promontory in Apulia (Puglia), the feuding families are rooted in agriculture. There is nothing glamorous about their day-to-day lives, staying in modest, humbly decorated homes, and no material wealth to speak of. Much of the film takes place at a farm, where pigs, goats, and cows take on all kinds of roles from accomplices to murder (eating the victims’ bodies), victims of retaliatory violence themselves, and even paraded through town as symbols of intimidation.
While Ti mangio il cuore feels a little long, and runs out of steam as the death toll piles up, it is no less beautifully crafted; its stunning black-and-white cinematography offers a bleak lens into this hopeless world. Wide shots, with crystalline clarity, bring so many details and subtle movements into view, immersing us into the farm compound, as livestock and family members scatter around, as objective, neorealist slices of life; while tighter, stylized close-ups fade layers in and out, drawing attention to one singular focus. The vivid black-and-white photography brings so much texture and depth to the image, and, as the narrative grows more tragic, the nighttime blacks are all the more sinister, as if swallowing up the characters into darkness.
The editing and sound design are equally impressive, almost underplaying their hand to a more powerful effect. A standout moment comes when Michele is about to meet his fate – a gunshot pointed at him, he begs his killer to preserve his face, and there’s a quick cut to Michele’s body, face, covered, at his funeral. There is no gunshot heard, just the ominous dinging of tubular bells. It’s a chilling moment, as though a life can be taken away, and the presence this family patriarch has, all reduced to the levity of a breath.
As a tragedy, Ti mangio il cuore doesn’t quite stick the landing – in establishing the love story at its center, or convincingly showing Andrea’s sudden shift into madness and bloodthirsty vengeance – but its compelling character dynamics & antitraditional depiction of the mafia, plus its brilliant craftsmanship make this a unique re-imagining of forbidden love within the world of organized crime.
Ti mangio il cuore (Burning Hearts) is a winner at the 2023 David di Donatello awards and is an official selection of the 49th Seattle International Film Festival! Explore more info at siff.net/festival. @SIFFnews #SIFF2023