Italian director Vincenzo Marra's fourth feature, which follows a priest who returns to his native Campania, premiered in the Venice Days section of the Venice Film Festival.

A well-intentioned priest returns home to the complex and compromised Campania region, around Naples, in Equilibrium (L’equilibrio), a sober and realistic fiction feature from Naples-born writer-director and occasional documentarian Vincenzo Marra. After shooting 2007’s The Trial Begins with Fanny Ardant and 2015’s First Light with local former heartthrob Riccardo Scamarcio, this feature represents in many ways a return to the incisive but modest modus operandi of his second and still best fiction feature, Land Wind (2004), a verite drama set in Campania that was shot, like this film, with very humble means and non-professional actors.

The non-pros in this Venice Days premiere aren’t all as convincing as the ones Marra used in Land Wind, however, giving the film a slightly uneven quality. But the issue of a certain lawlessness in Southern Italy, where police and the Church let the Camorra crime syndicate do whatever they please, remains a topical one and the fact this will be distributed locally by Warner Bros. should help it find an audience beyond just the arthouse crowd. Offshore, festivals and distributors interested in topical indie dramas will want to take note.

Don Giuseppe (Mimmo Borrelli) runs a small parish in Rome that also includes a center for refugees. He asks to be transferred when he feels his vocation might be compromised by feelings he’s developed for one of the women working at the center and ends up going home to what the Italians now often call Terra dei fuoci, the “land of fires,” an area north of Naples that has been in the news because of its problems involving industrial waste. Instead of being properly disposed of, which would cost a lot of money, the garbage was often simply buried or burnt illegally (hence the name), which led to unusually high numbers of illnesses for the locals including various types of cancer.

Don Giuseppe will replace the veteran cleric Don Antonio (Roberto Del Gaudio), who has been stationed in the same parish for 15 years and who has been a vocal opponent of the industrial-waste crisis. At first sight, he seems like a righteous person, fighting for the health and protection of his flock. In one of his impassioned sermons, he tells his parishioners: “I know how you feel. You are prisoners of a destiny you cannot change,” which is very true. But Antonio turns out to be a man who’s more into words than action; he shows Don Giuseppe the literal wastelands where so much toxic garbage has been buried but there’s not a peep from him about what could be done to fight it.

One of Don Giuseppe’s first actions as the newly installed priest is to visit an elderly lady (Astrid Meloni) who’s dying of cancer, probably caused by the waste crisis. She asks him to implore her estranged son, Saverio (Giuseppe D’Ambrosio), to come and visit her one last time. Saverio turns out to work as a guard for an abandoned building where addicts come to use drugs, a job clearly organized by the local dealers, who don’t want to have the addicts on the streets where police could easily intercept them. Giuseppe’s encounter with Saverio will slowly draw him deeper into the web of the local gangsters and how they control practically every aspect of life in his parish. This includes a woman, Assunta (Francesa Zazzera), who suspects her boyfriend is abusing her daughter but who can’t do anything because she lives in a building controlled by the Camorra and they don’t tolerate the cops there.

Stories about the far-reaching influence of organized crime syndicates in southern Italy are many and Marra, who also wrote the screenplay, isn’t working on the scale or with the virtuosity of people like Gomorrah’s Matteo Garrone or someone like Paolo Sorrentino. Though the plot developments rarely surprise, what’s interesting in this modest project is that the topic is seen through the prism of a man of the cloth who wanted to flee temptation but then has to deal with something infinitely more complex and much harder to solve. Time and again, Giuseppe is told that “that’s how things are around here,” whether they are fair or not (they practically never are). As Giuseppe will uncover, Antonio was very much complacent and perhaps even instrumental in sustaining the status quo as well, thus casting his remarks about the locals being “prisoners of a destiny they cannot control” in a much more diabolical light. The locals often seem not only possibly intimidated by the Camorra but also seem to proactively protect its interests. From their behavior, one could conclude that many might prefer to live in a rotten system they know how to navigate rather than fight for change that might come with a new, impenetrable power structure and inexplicable rules.

Throughout, Don Giuseppe is a stoic presence with an unwavering moral compass, though the reason he left Rome also makes clear he’s human rather than any kind of saint. Borrelli’s performance is subdued and stubborn, calculating but on a small scale, with Giuseppe constantly trying to see where he can make little adjustments and turn those into little victories without too much blowback. Del Gaudio offers the kind of stone-faced yet insidious performance that will gives audiences the chills, while as Saverio, D’Ambrosio is appropriately shifty, though in a few key scenes in which he needs to play big emotions, he doesn’t convince. The supporting players range from solid to unimpressive.

As an almost verite-like drama, the technical contributions are all sober and functional. The music, sparingly used, is dominated by plaintive strings.

Production companies: Cinemaundici, Lama Film, Rai Cinema, Ela Folm
Cast: Mimmo Borrelli, Roberto Del Gaudio, Lucio Giannetti, Giuseppe D’Ambrosio, Francesa Zazzera, Autilia Ranieri, Paolo Sassanelli, Astrid Meloni, Franceso Pio Romano
Writer-Director: Vincenzo Marra
Producers: Luigi Musini, Olivia Musini, Cesare Apolito, Renato Ragosta
Director of photography: Gianluca Laudadio
Production designer: Flaviano Barbarisi
Costume designer: Annalisa Ciaramella
Editors: Luca Benedetti, Arianna Zanini
Music: Apparat
Sales: Intramovies
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
In Neapolitan, Italian
No rating, 90 minutes