Despite style and a strong start, Pippo Mezzapesa’s film Burning Hearts doesn’t fulfil its ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ambitions or stay compelling.
“Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair [Puglia] where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Pippo Mezzapesa’s Burning Hearts (Ti mangio il cuore) has an air of Shakespearean tragedy to its beginnings: two feuding families, a son and a daughter from each ‘side’ falling in love, and a particularly bloody fallout. But the comparisons fade as the film moves into a study of the cyclical nature of the feuds themselves, of destiny and deception, and unfortunately becomes less compelling as a result.
In 1960s Puglia, the Malatesta family is massacred by the rival Camporeales. By 2004, the sole survivor Michele (Tommaso Ragno) has spent the intervening years enacting his blood revenge, murdering several members of the Camporeale family until a shaky stability is reached. But when his son Andrea (Francesco Patané) begins an illicit affair with Marilena (Elodie), the wife of a Camporeale brother, that stability is shattered and the feud is viciously reignited.
With its striking opening imagery – a Virgin Mary statue nicked by a bullet, blood spray dripping in rivulets down her skirt – the film sets out to make a statement. Reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet in its beginnings, it soon turns sour as Mezzapesa starts exploring the themes through the gaze of an unwelcome woman, a ‘whore’ from a rival family and the catalyst for this generation’s cycle of violence. Marilena is a reluctant ‘Juliet’ figure, who indulges in desire and finds herself a captive, torn from her children and seeking escape, redemption, salvation, or a mixture of all three. Mezzapessa uses Marilena as a way of navigating the relentlessly bleak, violent and cyclical nature of the Malatesta and Camporeale families’ blood feud, and it’s an effective way of visualising the futility in such things, of the pettiness and the relentlessness of grievances that date back decades.
But the film itself is done a disservice by being described as a ‘love story’, because the relationship between Marilena and Andrea feels like anything but. Theirs is a doomed romance in the literal sense, but it’s also toxic, abusive and underwhelmingly developed within the context of the film’s narrative. Andrea starts the film as a somewhat naïve, doe-eyed, handsome ‘Romeo’ stand-in, but by the end he’s so consumed with a need for revenge that he sees Marilena as something else to destroy. It’s fear that keeps Marilena there, as she’s sneered at by her lover, reviled by his mother and pitied by his other relations. Andrea’s treatment of her becomes so insidious, upsetting and cruel that it almost overshadows the thematic elements that Mezzapesa is trying to explore. Elodie and Patané give committed performances and have chemistry, but they can’t quite save their affair from feeling hollow and uncomfortable.
Visually, Burning Hearts is really impressive, as evidenced by its arresting opening scene. Shot in stark black and white – by cinematographer Michele D’Attansio – it’s a (slightly unsubtle) metaphor for the values held by the protagonists and looks really slick on screen, but unfortunately, it doesn’t quite save the film from its lofty but unfulfilled ambitions. Mezzapesa has an eye for detail, but the material is lacking and so the film is left feeling stylish but lacking substance. It’s a shame because while it started strongly, Burning Hearts ultimately doesn’t quite stick the landing. “Never a story of more woe”, indeed.
Burning Hearts (Ti Mangio Il Cuore) premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival and was released theatrically in Italy on September 22. The film will be screened at the From Venice to London Film Festival on February 3, 2023.