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‘Mondocane’ Review: A ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’ Mash-Up Without Any of the Necessary Punch

Alessandro Celli's Italian post-apocalyptic drama angles for child soldier depravity without any emotional ballast.


Kino Lorber

The stakes at the center of “Mondocane” aren’t without importance or tragedy: two boys search in the rubble of civilization for wealth, safety, and friendship. Owing to the lineage began by “Lord of the Flies,” this dreary and distant tale, backgrounded by glittering seas and abandoned buildings, should follow in the footsteps of Kim Nguyen’s harrowing film “War Witch” or Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s shocking “Johnny Mad Dog” — two movies about wayward children navigating harsh environments rendered harsher due to their age. But this Italian post-apocalyptic film from director Alessandro Celli angles for child soldier depravity without any of the heart.

In his narrative debut feature, Celli and co-writer Antonio Leotti have clearly taken all of the notes: The messianic leader who’s far less virtuous than he appears to be is there, as are the common initiations requiring children to lose their humanity and innocence to harden them. There’s even the girl who comes between two friends. Those familiar pieces, however, are shaken up and jumbled, as though Celli tried to put together a piece of furniture but lost the instructions.

The shadows of what Celli is trying to portray initially offering enticing apparitions, however. Pietro (Dennis Protopapa) and Cristian (Giuliano Soprano) emerge from below the ocean brandishing a large crucifix they hope to sell for scrap once they figure out what it’s called. See, civilization has devolved so much, so long ago, that even in Italy, they barely remember what Jesus looked like. The two boys find shelter and work on the boat of an old craggy fisherman. They, of course, crave more in a world that doesn’t offer much. Their only option is turning to the kid army known as “The Ants” and their bombastic leader Hothead (Alessandro Borghi).

Unfortunately, the group is only interested in the blonde, whipsmart Pietro. Cristian, derisively referred to as “Pisspants” lives with seizures and is deemed a liability by the gang. The Ants dispatch Pietro to prove his worth by ordering him to burn down a pet store.


Kino Lorber

In a movie devoid of charm, the strong bond shared by Pietro and Cristian, two friends who’d sacrifice everything and anything for the other, does rise to the surface. Cristian helps Pietro burn down the pet store, and when the Ants invite Pietro but not Cristian, the former turns down their offer. Both kids are unflinching. They’re the kind of desperate and unafraid that only happens when you’ve spent your entire life knowing that all the hallways are flooded and the lifeboats are gone. That near-unbreakable relationship gains them entry into the Ants, but it isn’t enough to keep them bound when the new world that opens up for them reveals unforeseen roadblocks and detours.

“Mondocane” wants to position the conflicts that arise between Pietro and Cristian for romance and heartache. For instance, despite Hothead ordering the kids to stay away from New Taranto, a glittering beach where the richer section of society dwells, the pair still venture to those shores. There Pietro meets and falls for the orphaned Sabrina (Ludovica Nasti), a steel mill girl whose adoration for Pietro wedges Cristian away from him. Celli and Leotti, however, aren’t interested in the interiority of Katia (Barbara Ronchi). In fact, they’re attentive to the inner lives of any of the kids, including the two leads.

Instead, their gaze turns toward the uninteresting adults like Hothead. Unlike, say, Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation,” Borghi doesn’t possess the kind of charisma that would attract an entire army. The country’s dire situation leading to acolytes who arrive simply out of necessity is an argument that could be made, but why hasn’t a more mesmerizing figure supplanted him? Instead, the lens falls for the mohawk, leather-clad leader with nothing interesting to say, and nothing of substance to do.

We never feel the film’s post-apocalyptic textures, because the landscape and universe these characters inhabit is bare and featureless. The only exception is the smokestacks for the steel mill that have polluted the environment. They find real-life inspiration in the rubber stamp approved Ilva steel plant in the southern city of Tarant.

Likewise, Pietro and Cristian continually bring up the possibility of escaping to Africa, a role reversal of African refugees arriving in Europe. These components dance on the edges of the film, but only find resonance in stops and starts. Instead, we’re sold underdeveloped subplots involving a charitable cop, women used strictly as eye candy, and missions devised by Hothead that lack intensity. One such escapade results in a child executing a wealthy woman, a common child soldier war movie trope that lacks bite because the interiority of the children is so threadbare.

As Pietro and Cristian’s friendship frays, we should sense heartach, but Celli doesn’t allow the audience to connect with his two main characters. Even the final chase scene through the claustrophobic bowels of the steel mill, captured in garish neon photography by Giuseppe Maio and edited without a pulse by Clelio Benevento, falls flat. At every turn, “Mondocane” commits the gravest sin of any child war film: It forgets about the children we’re meant to care about.

Grade: C-

Kino Lorber will release “Mondocane” in select theaters on Friday, May 20.

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