At its grungy heart, Alessandro Celli’s “Mondocane” is about the dissolution of a friendship. Yet this cynical, near-future crime thriller, with its Hunger Games morality and Mad Max aesthetic, is too busy glamorizing cruelty to allow its central relationship to resonate.
Set in Taranto, an Italian port city where a contamination disaster has poisoned the area and caused the remaining residents to scrabble for survival, the story focuses on two orphans. Pietro and Cristian (Dennis Protopapa and Giuliano Soprano) are fast friends living hand-to-mouth on an old fishing boat. Cristian, who suffers from debilitating seizures, is the more reckless of the two, believing that his unidentified malady will kill him. So when they’re recruited by the Ants, a criminal gang of feral urchins led by the sociopathic Hothead (Alessandro Borghi), Cristian’s affinity for chaos marks him immediately for advancement.
A derivative, dystopian fable (narratively indebted to the region’s longtime problems with steel-plant emissions), “Mondocane” paints a post-apocalyptic world in burnished copper and gleaming gold. As the two boys learn to shoot and conduct heists in the city’s wealthy neighborhood, their miseducation is bedeviled by erratic pacing and the distracting attentions of an obsessive police officer and her young informant.
Sprawling action scenes feel more de rigueur than essential in a plot intent upon tragedy and betrayal; but when Celli relaxes enough to trust his young leads — as when, during a break-in, they delightedly discover a shower that delivers hot water — the movie charms with an effortless naturalism. Moments like this remind us that, for those on the margins, innocence is always the first victim.
Not rated. In Italian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. In theaters.