“Tainted Souls” (“Il Contagio”)
Lives in the Working-Class Suburbs of Rome
Directors Matteo Botrugno and Daniele Coluccini bring us the fates of two men from the working-class suburbs, separated by the different choices they make. Their film is set in the Roman outskirts that are plagued by small-time and big-time criminals but the focus is on the humanity of those who live there. The film is based the novel of the same name by Walter Siti and it can be seen as a love story (or several love stories), as the tale of a tragic friendship, as a patchwork of lives in the working-class suburbs, or even as the portrait of an underworld of ruthless wheeler-dealers who take advantage of those working-class people to make money and reach the upper classes. It is also the story of a choice: to stay and be one of the last remaining residents, or to get out and sell one’s soul to the devil. In the first part of the movie, we find ourselves in a working-class block of flats that is teeming with people with different accents and stories. We are introduced to two couples, Mauro and Simona (Maurizio Tesei and Giulia Bevilacqua), and Marcello and Chiara (Vinicio Marchioni and Anna Foglietta); and there is also an author, Walter (Vincenzo Salemme), who is Marcello’s secret lover and provides him with financial support, as well as being the narrator of the film. Life goes by, with all its rumors, small-time drug dealing and football matches but also with the settling of scores, armed robberies and betrayals. It’s a colorful array of ordinary people getting by as best they can, and trying to love each other.
Halfway through the film, another story begins. We skip forward three years and the plot zeroes in on Mauro, who has made his fortune by making the leap from being a small-time dealer to getting involved in the “business” of cooperatives that help immigrants by appropriating public funds. We follow him during his descent into the underworld, residing in his impressive apartment in central Rome, his face disfigured from cocaine abuse and with a past that has come knocking on his door (Marcello, who, frantic and overwhelmed by debt, has come to ask him for help). The warm colors of the suburbs give way to the cold lights of the city, middle-class vices gain the upper hand over love and friendship, and a dizzying sequence shot accompanies Mauro along his path of damnation. He disowns his roots and gives in to false ideals and cuts his family ties for the sake of money.
Set against the backdrop of a depressingly modern Rome, where corruption is like a disease that taints the soul that Italian cinema continues to depict with conviction. This is a seemingly high-minded stab at socially-relevant drama but it stumbles slowly and mysteriously from one marginal character to another, without establishing who or what “Tainted Souls” is actually about, leaving us to care for no one at all. Marcello is broke but he refuses to get a job, so it’s tough empathize with him. His wife is ill but he cheats on her. Attilio is amoral and selfish. Bruno is a wife-beater. Mauro is the only one with the brains to be a better man but gives up his humanity in exchange for promises of riches, and he presumably does this because he grew up poor. Drug use is rife and so is criminality. It’s a surprise when a narrator tries to persuade us at the end that one of the biggest liars in the movie is a great guy.
The film is about the tragic lives led by marginalized, working-class people who keep making terrible decisions over and over. A woman is married to her childhood friend, frustrated by the fact that he’s gay and unemployed. Innocents are defrauded by a high-level drug dealer using a charity to steal millions. Jobless men go into hock to violent drug-dealers. They are beaten by the dealers. One man is stoned to death by them. A woman commits suicide by turning up the gas on her stove. Frequent cocaine use is shown as is pot smoking, drinking, and cigarette smoking. No sex is shown but heterosexual couples are seen kissing and a gay couple is seen touching each other’s faces. A woman finds someone’s vibrator. A narrator talks about “penetration” with his gay lover. “Gang-bangs” and orgies are mentioned. We hear gay and Asian slurs and other curse words as we get a look at life that is not pretty.