In the early '90s, cinema was full of violent, bloody, occasionally brilliant films about crime and gangsters: Goodfellas (1990), Miller's Crossing (1990), State of Grace (1990), The Godfather Part III (1990). The breathlessly condensed prologue of Queen of Hearts seems to point in much the same direction.
In a peasant region of Italy, two young lovers escape their respective families. Danilo (Joseph Long) dreams of prosperity overseas, while Rosa (Anita Zagaria) is eager to flee the prospect of a loveless, arranged marriage to Barbariccia (Vittorio Amandola). The spurned bridegroom swears revenge.
Cut to London, many years later. Danilo and Rosa have several sons and daughters who reluctantly help out in the family business, a café-restaurant. The memories of Italy and Barbariccia have long since become a tall story, oft-told for the pleasure of customers. But suddenly, Danilo finds the foundations of his new life slowly being eroded: Barbariccia has indeed returned, demanding the wife who was promised to him long ago.
Although it is a heightened, passionate tale of love, revenge and possessiveness, Queen of Hearts is not a conventional gangster movie. There is scarcely a gunshot or glimpse of blood. When Barbariccia appears – the classic dark, avenging angel from the past – he wields not a machine gun, but economic power. His ability to buy and sell, and his manipulation of others' desire for social status, are his deadliest weapons. The ultimate showdown between Danilo and Barbariccia is not a shootout, but a tense card game – hence the film's title.
In between its affecting moments of grand melodrama, Queen of Hearts is a rich and colourful portrait of a multicultural lifestyle. The gregarious, Italian manners of Danilo's family (particularly its older members) is crossed with the downbeat ambience of London and the often sour moods of its native inhabitants. The film quietly and poignantly builds a tapestry of vignettes concerning the material survival of ordinary people in a forbiddingly harsh economic climate – an unlikely but thoroughly absorbing dramatic subject.
The film is also centrally about the social mobility that inevitably takes place when large amounts of money suddenly enter people's lives. Danilo watches, heartbroken, as his son, Bruno (Jimmy Lambert), increasingly renounces his family heritage and eventually goes to work for Barbariccia. The entire story, told from the viewpoint of the youngest son, Eddie (Stefano Spagnoli), is conjured as the fading memory of a world long ago vanquished by the unstoppable, brutal forces of social change.
Sharing Eddie's unusual viewpoint on events, Queen of Hearts is both nostalgic and vivid – a strange and compelling mixture of toughness and sentimentality. It is undoubtedly conservative in its obsessive centring on the making and breaking of emotional bonds between men – fathers, sons, brothers and mates. Like Rosa, literally reduced to the stake in the power games between men, all the women have rather marginal roles.
But there are many fine things here – a promising cinema debut for Jon Amiel, director of the original television version of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective. Given the story's affinity with the gangster genre, the film's finest coup is the way it manages, in a final, moving twist, to enlist our sympathy for the arch-villain, Barbariccia. Even the most ruthless capitalist, it seems, has a bleeding heart.
© Adrian Martin May 1991