Directed by Emanuele Crialese
Amid the loud juggernauts of typical summer fare, Respiro is a source of quiet relief. The tale of Grazia (Valeria Golino, Frida), a loving mother of three living in a tiny fishing community on the island of Lampedusa, near western Sicily, focuses on characters and a lifestyle that stay in the mind long after the end credits roll.
A Simple Kind of Life
Grazia's island life revolves around her children and cleaning fish. With the heat of the sun and the island's rustic setting, her outbursts and unpredictable behavior seem like those of a woman looking for ways to escape the routine.
When French visitors arrive, Grazia is eager to invite herself along for a boat ride. To escape the heat, she takes her sons to the ocean and has no reluctance in swimming topless in the waters. Singing and playfully putting makeup on precocious boys provide her with a character and individuality far different from the other island ladies.
Further spurring her on is her husband, Pietro (Vincenzo Amato, Ciao America), who is sometimes loving, but at other times neglectful. He's quick to punish his bullying older son, Pasquale (Francesco Casisa), and he's also quick to brush away his wife while he's chatting with his friends over a beer.
Such scenes bring out the devil in Grazia and her unpredictable behavior leaves her branded as a public menace and a raving lunatic. Grazia becomes an outcast and her family decides to send her to Milan for treatment.
Aided by Pasquale, Grazia seeks shelter in the rocky caves overlooking the ocean. Her disappearance leads the locals to believe she has committed suicide. It's that thought that makes the grieving community realize what they might have lost.
Stuck in a Moment
Based on a legend in Lampedusa, whether Grazia is truly mentally sick or simply stuck in a life she'd like to get out of is not entirely clear, and that ambiguity adds an extra layer of depth to Grazia's character and predicament. Her family quickly dispenses drugs when she lashes out, but that almost seems like a quick fix to a deeper problem they simply don't understand and might be afraid to confront.
While Grazia's story is the main focus of Respiro, it is only one part of a larger canvas brought to life by writer/director Emanuele Crialese (Once We Were Strangers). Balancing the film are some very nice moments of humor and touching scenes of small-town adolescence.
For one, there's a side story involving Grazia's daughter, Marinela (Veronica D'Agostino). She's a beautiful girl going through the awkward stages of first love and learning the fine art of seduction. When Marinela sets off for a romantic afternoon overlooking the ocean with her new-in-town boyfriend Pier, (Elio Germano, Concorrenza Sleale) they haul a love seat out of one of the caves and sit on the rocky, barren hillside, awkwardly figuring out what to do next. Unfortunately, her little brother, Filippo (Filippo Pucillo) happens upon the lovebirds and breaks up the mood with his insistence she behave herself and go home.
Filippo is quite the character and Pucillo gives a stunning star-turn as a 10-year-old godfather in the making. Pucillo is incredibly rambunctious, a Lampedusa native, and has never acted before.
The Trick Is to Keep Breathing
Pucillo is one part of Respiro's secret: Most of the cast has never acted before. But, amazingly, it doesn't show.
Golino shines brightly as Grazia, a tricky character to pull off given her mix of innocence, unpredictability, tenderness and volatility. Considering her supporting cast's lack of professional experience, it's a credit to Golino and Crialese that their actions play out so naturally. Grazia has a great, close relationship with her children and it comes across as something real.
Helping make the experience complete, the cinematography by Fabio Zamarion (Occidente) takes advantage of the island's natural beauty and ruggedness, parched by the heat of the mid-day sun. Also helping to set the tone is an excellent score by John Surman (Emporte-moi), which effectively captures the beat of life on the island.
Unlike the majority of typical summer fare, Respiro weaves its magic on its own terms, softly and without a cold, calculated formula. From start to finish, it has its own direction and it chooses to leave some things below the surface, subject to the viewer's interpretation.
That said, the film's last scene, full of symbolism and artistic notions, is of the kind that can only be found in a movie made outside the Hollywood system.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.