Deep in the Apulian countryside, resides two powerful families with a venomous hatred of each other – the Malatestas and the Camporeales. It’s been around 40 years since their last bloodshed and ever since both families have been stuck in a tense stalemate with each other. All until the young Malatesta heir Andrea (Francesco Patanè) seduces – and impregnates – Marilena (Elodie) the wife of the Camporeale patriarch. From here, a string of violence is unleashed between the clans as the Malatesta family, reluctantly, takes in Marilena as one of their own. Directed by Pippo Mezzapesa and based on the book ‘Ti mangio il cuore’ by Carlo Bonini and Giuliano Foschini, Burning Hearts is premiering in the Horizons strand at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Burning Hearts – a lot more subtle version of the original, more graphic book title which directly translates into ‘I eat your heart’ – is an ambitious and histrionic depiction of family ties, glory, and aspiration for power.
Not quite star-crossed lovers, Andrea and Marilena’s relationship begins as a haphazard series of mistakes rather than a yearning, passionate commitment to love each other endlessly. Alike an off-kilter take on Romeo and Juliet, Andrea and Marilena are instead forced into a situation where neither, especially Marilena, are truly happy. What we think we initially see with Andrea’s wide-eyed and naïve obsession with Marilena is not a testimony of love but rather a power-hungry ploy for ownership and status. Void of true passion or romance, it’s hard to coin Burning Hearts as a film about love but rather one about greed and a maniac obsession with owning someone; instilling a grave bleakness that runs throughout the film.
The film is constructed of stunning black and white cinematography; stark shots of grand-scale muddy wastelands and mucky pigpens introduce the isolated and rural dwellings of the Malatesta family. Building on this eerie atmosphere, Mezzapesa utilises absence as much as presence in this film to really drive home a sense of perpetual alert and unease. While the Camporeale family is constantly attacking and targeting the Malatestas, we rarely see actual scenes of violence on screen. We see glimpses of the Camporeales in short scenes but we only see the aftermath of the majority of the violence– dead corpses that are left on the road or farm animals being slaughtered in the dead of night. The violence is constant and predictable – after every scene of joy must come a scene of destruction – but aids in building on the sweeping sense of grimness and hopelessness.
Although Burning Hearts is rooted in family troubles, the structures and dynamics of the families feel underdeveloped and flat. Notably, it’s a deliberate choice not to show much of the Camporeales but the Malatestas are in the spotlight of the film and still, the characters feel blurred and hollow. Instead of living, breathing characters Andrea’s relatives are treated like set pieces who wait around until Andrea’s boiling hubris and rage eventually destroy them. Instead of creating a web of complex and engaging characters who operate as the Malatesta clan, the film puts all its energy into creating this phenomenal tragic hero in the form of Andrea – who has so many conflicting faces, motives, and energies that it’s hard to find his character believable. Without much real heart or intricate characters, it’s difficult to bite into the empathetic hankering that comes with most tragedies – rather the film just feels dreary and deflated.
One of the main issues with Burning Hearts is that it runs before it can walk. So eager to build itself up as this monumental mafia epic with exquisite cinematography and profound themes of familial bonds, destruction, and fatal hamartia comparative to that of The Godfather or Romeo and Juliet, it forgets to pin itself down in the details. The setup of Andrea and Marilena’s story is so rushed, so sure of itself, that when it gets to the middle of its story it starts to falter – and relies on a shock value cycle of violence, more violence, and even worse violence to keep the story going.
With its grandiose images and motifs of family allegiance, deep-rooted vengeance, and power Burning hearts paints itself as an epic drama of sweeping scale. However, with no real vitality, soul, or care for its characters, there is no bittersweet tragedy or swooning melancholy but rather a stiff and restrained play out between characters. Notably filled to the brim with some remarkable framing and camerawork, Burning Hearts values style over substance in this ambitious take on the mafia genre.
Written by Abi Aherne