Writer-director Emanuele Crialese is a native Roman, but his graduate work in film was done at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and he made his first film, “Once We Were Strangers,” in English in New York City. His second, “Respiro,” resulted from a desire for a return to his roots and some needed solitude.

“The real inspiration for the film was me wanting to go back to Italy after the ten years that I was living in New York,” Crialese explained during a recent interview in Dallas. “I picked this island [Lampedusa, off the western coast of Sicily] because a friend of mine had a house there, and I used their house. I was supposed to be there for like a month, then I stayed three months. I was really inspired in part by the life of these people in this small community, the way they’re really dependent on one another–which was very different from the lifestyle in New York, or even in Rome…a more urban environment, with everybody kind of isolated and more closed in one’s own world.

“So I went there for eight months and I started to take notes, to shoot some footage on the kids–the kids were the main inspiration in the beginning, the way they were different from our kids…I was really amazed by their lifestyle.”

Had Crialese continued along this initial path, he might have ended up with a neo-realist film about the boys of Lampedusa. But something intervened.

“I started to hear the story of this woman, which I soon began to realize was an invented legend,” he recalled. The tale, which Crialese eventually adapted into the “Respiro” script, concerned a local woman whose extravagant, unconventional behavior came to be seen as a threat to the community.

“It was something the community made up,” Crialese explained, recalling that sources placed the event at very different times in the island’s history (one even in the present). “And I asked myself: why does the community need to have this legend? There’s got to be a reason why you invent as a community, a collective, a myth like [that of] this woman…I started to question why, and my film is a little bit of an answer to that, the search for that answer.”

Crialese’s script centers on Grazia (Valeria Golino), the free-spirited wife of fisherman Pietro (Vincenzo Amato) and mother of three children–the teenaged Marinella (Veronica D’Agostino) and two rambunctious boys, Pasquale (Francesco Casisa) and Filippo (Filippo Pucillo). As her behavior becomes more and more reckless, Pietro is pressured to send her away to the mainland for treatment; but Pasquale helps her to hide in an isolated cave, and eventually feigns her death, leading the community to regret its treatment of her. Crialese described the story as a commentary on “the role of black sheep, or the enemy” in a community. The islanders created the myth, he opined, because “they needed to have somebody to point a finger at. We want this person to be like us, because we’re scared, because we can’t control it, because it’s unpredictable. So I wanted to investigate why we need an enemy all the time, and what do we do with it? We either fix it–make it conform–or we eliminate it, push the enemy aside. And when we don’t have the enemy anymore, we have a desperate need to create another one. The enemy makes the community feel more strong, more unified. This woman represented change in the society. And the black sheep helps every society to evolve, because it’s through the sacrifice of the black sheep that the community can really progress.” On Lampedusa, he said, “a woman has a role or existence only if she is a mother or a wife. Without fulfilling these two roles a woman has no identity.” Grazia represents a refusal to adhere to those social expectations, and “to protect their social identity,…when you get out of that role, they try to put you back in.”

Though Crialese was being specific about the sociological or psychological underpinnings of “Respiro,” his film is hardly a didactic piece–it is, as he noted, a work of magical realism, in which fantasy alternates with images of real-life. The portrait drawn of the community is certainly very specific, down to the use of the local dialect in the dialogue, and the boys–local children who’d never seen a movie before, let alone acted in one–are wonderfully natural. Against this background the figure of Grazia seems almost otherworldly–as Crialese notes, she even glides rather than walks. And her “condition,” as others perceive it, is deliberately left vague. A sense of mystery hangs over the picture’s final images of feet wading on the bottom of the sea.

“I don’t like films that give you all the answers and that bang you over the head with all the perfect motivations, a perfect explanation of everything,” Crialese said, describing the rationale behind the questions “Respiro” leaves unresolved. “I get bored [with that]. So I try to relate with the audience as if I were my own audience”–by leaving what he hopes is a satisfying ambiguity.

“Respiro” is a Sony Pictures Classics release.