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Julien Colonna’s Superb Corsican Mob Movie

Julien Colonna’s Superb Corsican Mob Movie

The shadow of The Godfather looms large over French director Julien Colonna’s formidable feature debut, The Kingdom (Le Royaume), and not only because one of the characters in it is literally called “Godfather.”

Set in Corsica in 1995, at a time when the island was wracked by warfare among nationalist groups and crime families, the film focuses on one mafioso clan that’s beset by enemies on all sides and needs to survive by any means necessary. The head of that clan is a very casually dressed Don Corleone named Pierre-Paul (Saveriu Santucci), and he needs to both preserve his leadership and protect his teenage daughter, Lesia (the illuminating Ghjuvanna Benedetti), as they run from cops and mobsters alike.

The Kingdom

The Bottom Line

A riveting debut.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Ghjuvanna Benedetti, Saveriu Santucci, Anthony Morganti, Andrea Cossu, Fédéric Poggi, Régis Gomez
Director: Julien Colonna
Screenwriters: Julien Colonna, Jeanne Herry

1 hour 48 minutes

So yes, it’s a very Godfather-like scenario — but it’s as if the Coppola classic were told from the viewpoint of a young Connie, chronicling how a girl on the verge of womanhood not only gets to know the true nature of her dad, but how she may soon wind up following in his footsteps.

Directed with razor-sharp, naturalistic precision and set over one sweltering Corsican summer, amid stunning Mediterranean vistas that provide a backdrop to all the bloody vendettas, The Kingdom marks the arrival of a bold new talent who’s able to spin a gripping crime thriller while channeling real emotion on screen.

The director, who co-wrote the script with Jeanne Herry (In Safe Hands), takes his time to get to the crime thriller part, and a gun is only fired well into the film’s second act. In fact, when we initially meet 15-year-old Lesia, she seems to be living the carefree life of an average teenager on vacation, going to the beach, hanging out with her friends and canoodling with a boy from her village who works at the supermarket. Okay, we do see her fearlessly gutting a wild boar in the opening sequence, but beyond that Lesia seems to be a regular girl growing up in a remote Corsican town surrounded by hills and woods.

That all changes when, without warning, she’s suddenly whisked away to a seaside villa on another part of the island, where Pierre-Paul has been hiding out with his henchmen. We realize that this is how things work between father and daughter — we learn later that Lesia’s mother died years ago — in an arrangement where she goes to visit her dad in his various hiding places, but otherwise lives with another family.   

Lesia isn’t happy at first to be there. She misses her boyfriend and makes a possibly fatal error by trying to call him from a payphone, whereas Pierre-Paul’s location needs to be kept secret. Why this is the case soon becomes clear when a car bomb nearly kills a local politician, who shows up at the villa afterwards to cavort with the mobsters.

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Beyond a few cutaway sequences, nearly the entire story is told through Lesia’s limited point of view, and we glean vital pieces of information as she overhears conversations through doorways and windows, or when she occasionally asks her father to explain what’s happening. Her initiation into Pierre-Paul’s small and murderous empire will be ours as well, even if we don’t grasp until the very end what crimes he’s been running from for all these years.

Colonna, who grew up in Corsica and knows the terrain extremely well, trusts viewers to put the puzzle together and to accept not understanding everything — which is what Lesia seems to accept as well, at least early on. As the story progresses and she gets closer to Pierre-Paul, especially once they flee the villa to escape gangsters trying to take them down, she also grows closer to his dirty business. Just like Michael Corleone, Lesia will evolve from a child who’s been far removed from the mafia to one who will find herself in the heart of it, with all the danger that entails.

The cruel irony of The Kingdom is that a normal family life will never be possible for father and daughter — as evidenced by a transfixing monologue that Pierre-Paul delivers while the two are hiding out together in a vacation campground. It’s definitely one of the highlights in this superbly directed movie, and it’s followed by an equally great scene in which we suddenly realize why Pierre-Paul took Lesia there in the first place.

Working with DP Antoine Cormier, also making an impressive feature debut, Colonna captures the pair’s harrowing journey in sober color tones, with many shots reflecting Lesia’s distant and limited POV. This includes lots of action that occurs offscreen, with TV reports filling us in on what Pierre-Paul’s band of hardened assassins (played by Anthony Morganti, Andrea Cossu and Féeric Poggi) are up to.

When action does happen, it’s quick and brutal. There’s nothing elegant or movie-like about what these mobsters do: Murders are carried out bluntly by men on scooters dressed in sports clothes, and everyone gets their hands dirty when they need to. Sure, they own some nice villas, but they often have to live in squalor to escape from other gangsters, as well as from gendarmes trying to hunt them down at any moment.

And yet Lesia gradually gets drawn into this world, mostly out of love for her dad but also because she seems to be a lot like him. This leads us all the way to a riveting finale in which we finally see what she’s truly capable of, although Colonna leaves open the possibility that she could perhaps live a normal life after all. The question is whether she wants to.

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