Among the local Italian crime syndicates we’ve had plenty of films about the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and a few about the Neapolitan Camorra, but the southern organizations—the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta—have gotten less attention. That’s somewhat rectified (if that’s the right word) by Francesco Munzi’s film “Black Souls,” set largely in the ancient mountainside town of Africo on the southern coast of the peninsula’s toe, where an effort to maintain the Carbone family’s role in the region’s criminal enterprises pits brother against brother and leads to death and despair.

The script, adapted by Munzi, Fabrizio Ruggirello and Maurizio Braucci from a novel by Giacchino Criacco, finds the clan’s paterfamilias dead and dour Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), the eldest of his three sons, preferring a life tending goats to engaging in drug-smuggling, even though he’s a hot-tempered fellow by nature. The slack has been taken up by his younger brother Luigi (Marco Leonardi), a swaggering guy with an entourage of thugs who enjoys traveling to Amsterdam to close a deal with a supplier or arranging an understanding with another family at a big outdoor meal. Meanwhile their owlish brother Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta), who takes care of the financial side of the operation and is a bit embarrassed by Luigi’s crude habits, lives the high life in Milan with his wife Valeria (Barbora Bobulova), a northerner who’s as much of an outsider to this family as Kay Adams was to the Corleones.

Luciano and Luigi see eye to eye about very little—particularly the future of the former’s son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), who despises his father’s weakness and gravitates toward his uncle’s bulldog strength. When the teen’s tendency to act out gets him into trouble in Africo, he goes off to Rocco’s place, where he’s even more taken by the sophisticated things his family’s business can bring. But Leo’s intemperance has irked the Carbone’s rivals, the Barracas; and despite efforts to calm the waters, the tension continues to simmer until one brutal act of violence leads to others, and finally to disaster within the Carbone clan itself.

“Black Souls” is essentially a Greek tragedy—quite appropriate, since the very name ‘Ndrangheta is of Hellenic origin (as is Africo)—and Munzi suffuses it with a dark, ominous tone that signals an inevitably devastating outcome. He emphasizes the ostentatiously bellicose practices that are supposed to mark male behavior within the extended criminal family, and especially the Catholic rituals of grief that the clan—especially its women—continue to perform just as they have for centuries when death intrudes. The atmosphere of gloom is accentuated by the authentic locations—dreary despite the topographical splendor—and Vladan Radovic’s cinematography, which emphasizes the somber quality of the place.

The performances are excellent, with Ferracane, Leonardi and Mazzotta all getting to the heart of their characters’ very different personalities and Fumo etching a grimly bland portrait of a quietly angry young man prone to self-destructive recklessness. As is so often the case in such films, the women are relegated to the background, but both Bobulova and Anna Ferruzzo, as Luciano’s wife Antonia, make their mark, and Aurora Quattrocchi is unforgettable as the long-suffering family matriarch, who carries her sorrows like a heavy burden but is unafraid literally to spit at the police who burst into her house to search for evidence.

Unlike many mafia-related films, this one is unstintingly bleak in portraying a criminal society that’s nonchalant about its brutality, representing a mindless parody of the concept of honor that its name implies. (‘Ndrangheta literally means bravery, or manly virtue.) There are no heroes to be found here, only thugs, corpses and stunned survivors, and even the sequences of betrayal and violent death are presented so matter-of-factly that they emphasize the casual nature of the cruelty they express. The final impression “Black Souls” leaves is of a seemingly endless stream of misery in which retribution is the sole release, but one that merely leads to more pain. By deliberately eschewing the operatic grandiosity of the “Godfather” films and the narrative extravagance of “Gamorrah,” it presents the dismal reality of the Italian underworld culture without any flourishes that might make it in the least attractive. The result is a tragedy more like Miller than Shakespeare—a tough, sober portrait of a culture seeped in deadly traditions that perpetuate themselves, and in which any attempt to escape the cycle merely prolongs it.