‘The Kingdom’ Review: A Confident Debut Worthy of History’s Great Mob Films

“The Godfather” goes to Corsica in “The Kingdom” (or “Le Royaume” in its native French), a nifty crime thriller mixed with a tender coming-of-age drama.

As in Francis Ford Coppola’s mob masterpiece, a senior mafioso is targeted for execution, so it’s time for his closest associates to go to the mattresses, whether they’re getting together for muttered conferences or popping out on assassination missions. One key difference between “The Godfather” and “The Kingdom,” the debut feature film from writer-director Julien Colonna, is that the gangsters in the latter are often seen on the beach with their shirts off. The other difference is that the godfather in waiting isn’t a war veteran, as Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone was, but a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Lesia, played by Ghjuvanna Benedetti, a striking newcomer.

Lesia is first seen on a family hunting trip getting splattered with blood while gutting a boar she’s just shot. This ominous introduction aside, she enjoys a normal life in a Corsican seaside village with her aunt and her brother, where she shops for groceries and flirts with a handsome classmate at the start of 1995’s school summer holidays. But that all changes when she is whisked away to a villa where she is the only female in a crowd of weathered middle-aged men. It takes a few exchanges for the viewer to identify which of these men is her father — and at first, Pierre-Paul (Saveriu Santucci) seems like a stranger to Lesia, too. This bald, bearded clan boss has been on the run for most of his daughter’s life, dodging the police and rival gangsters, so she hardly ever sees him when they’re not on boar-hunting expeditions.

Pierre-Paul promises that he and the sullen Lesia will share a leisurely week of fishing trips and beach parties, but after the assembled uncles and cousins watch a news report of a car bomb that might well have been intended for him, plans change. From now on, Pierre-Paul will be busy nipping between safe houses, donning disguises and bullet-proof vests, and sending his lieutenants to gun down his enemies. Yet Lesia comes to value this quality time. Yes, she is in danger, but how often does she get to bond with her dad? Besides, those hunting trips have prepared her to take some pot shots at his enemies herself.

There’s a dash of sentimentality to Colonna’s depiction of Pierre-Paul, a big-hearted Don who still mourns the loss of his angelic wife — someone who never meant to harm anyone except the men who killed his own father. The closeness that grows between father and daughter is touching, even reminiscent of both Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun” and Maren Ade’s “Tony Erdmann.” But it’s hard to believe that he and his sidekicks would all be as courteous and solicitous as they are. Certainly, they’re nowhere near as diabolical as the provincial thugs in the comparable and similarly named “Animal Kingdom.”

But overall, “The Kingdom” is a rivetingly credible and vivid portrait of organized crime in an area with a long tradition of banditry. The Mediterranean island’s proud regional character, politics, languages and rugged-yet-unspoiled, tourist-friendly scenery are all delineated with the detail and conviction you get from a local: Colonna was born in Corsica and would have been roughly the same age as Lesia in the mid-1990s.

The film’s understated performances all smack of rough-and-ready reality, too. Both Benedetti and Santucci were nonprofessional actors until they were discovered in an eight-month casting process. And the swift, brutal violence has a documentary-like authenticity. There isn’t much action in “The Kingdom,” but when it comes, it’s so clear and intense that, again, it calls “The Godfather” to mind.

Of course, it’s not really fair to measure Colonna’s small-scale debut to one of the all-time greatest crime dramas. The tension dissipates as the fugitives keep moving from place to place, and because everything is shown from Lesia’s limited perspective, the causes of the gangs’ feuding aren’t explained. But “The Kingdom” is so confident and accomplished that it should secure Colonna big budgets and big stars in the near future.

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