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Grazia is a mother of three who spends suffocating days packing fish while her husband Pietro is at sea. Her oft-erratic behavior leads Pietro into thinking she may need medical attention, and he prepares to send her off to a psychiatric institute in Milan. Their son Pasquale, the one person who understand his mother the most, vows to do whatever it takes to foil his father's plan. Written by
In Emanuele Crialese's lyrical drama Respiro, the sky is gorgeous. The sea is gorgeous. The harsh landscape is gorgeous. The children, even when they are behaving like little monsters, are gorgeous. The lead actress is gorgeous. There is so much obvious and intentional gorgeousness about this picture that we have to dig far down, past the scene painting, to find the story.
Although subtitled Grazia's island (Grazia is the lead role, magnificently realised by Valeria Golino), Respiro could have well been called "Scenes from rural Sicilian life", as the scenography, cinematography and tableaux-like imagery seem as important to the director as her thin narrative line. Respiro's locale is Lampedusa, a tiny island far off the west coast of Sicily. About the same latitude as Malta, this place is about as remote as it gets - Tunis is closer than Palermo. It can be safe to say that Italian time here has pretty much stood still for decades; this is Italy of de Sica and Mascagni, not Fellini and Prada. The men go out to sea, the children play, women pack fish, old black-clad crones meddle and the languid summer air of total boredom hangs down from the cloudless sky.
The story is fairly typical, the type that a few great (and many, many average) Italian filmmakers have been serving up for the last three generations - life in the sun drenched rural, ritualistic and tribal south and the saga of one village denizen who dares to break the moulds. How long since Cinema Paradiso?
Grazia (incidentally, the name means "grace" - get it?) is a loving, rebellious humanist - she loves her children, she loves music, she loves swimming in her panties, she loves the Vespa-propelled wind in her hair and loathes the suffering of any living creature. She does not love to cook, or put on rubber wellies and plastic smock to pack sardines. This high-spirited recklessness is just a bit too much for this dusty place and she is duly deemed mad. Golino, who acts in four languages and has had decent parts in Leaving Las Vegas, Immortal Beloved and Frida, is a joy to watch. There is not a moment forced or unnatural about her performance and this is saying a fair bit, considering her several mad scenes. She conveys brilliantly the purgatory of a loving woman who wants more, but knows neither what it is nor how to get it.
After two incidents (one just a bit lusty, the other bordering on a bit off) it is decided by the meddling crones and village busybodies to send Grazia off to a sanatorium in Milan, which might as well be Mars. She will have no part of this and her 13-year-old son hides her in a secluded cave. Her ensuing escape, seclusion and discovery offer us some more gorgeous imagery and displays the motherly bonding quite well. Yes, the imagery does go a bit down the obvious, biblical, redemptive female roads, but it well handled. Water, which has played quite a large role in the director's concept, stars in a few more scenes. It also features in the film's ending, which is spiritual, gorgeous and inconclusive in the same breadth. Love and human devotion may win, but this gal is not going to be packing sardines for much longer!
The movie, considering the almost rudimentary story line, is incredibly rich. The smallest characters are well defined and there is wonderful juxtaposition between formal Italian and the coarse regional dialect. Much of the cast is so natural you could believe them to be locals. The essence of life in such a village is well captured and the relationships within a family are well explored as well. And there is enough of the magical landscape of the place to make you want to board the next Alitalia jet. For a visit, that is.
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