In his second feature writer-director Emanuele Crialese has created an intriguing combination of lower-class neo-realism and lush romantic fable. On the one hand “Respiro” is a portrait of traditional society in a fishing village on a small island off the Sicilian coast; as such it recalls such classics as Visconti’s “La terra trema” (1947). The rambunctious, rough-housing boys in the family are also reminiscent of the urchins in some of De Sica’s films. On the other hand, the passionate relationship of the parents, the brusque charm of the kids, and the overwhelming feeling of nostalgia for the village society that permeate the film are more characteristic of the pictures of Giuseppe Tornatore–as is its gorgeous color cinematography (the work of Fabio Zamarion), which gives the locale a sumptuous fairytale ambience. The mixture of disparate elements doesn’t always jell, but it does hold one’s interest.
“Respiro” centers on a family living on the simultaneously rough and idyllic isle of Lampedusa. Father Pietro (Vincenzo Amato) is a fisherman deeply in love with his free-spirited wife Grazia (Valeria Golino), even though her wild ways are taken by many as indicative of mental instability that’s dangerous to the well-being of the community. The couple have three children. The eldest, daughter Marinella (Veronica D’Agostino), is showing the first signs of romantic interest, while her younger brothers Pasquale (Francesco Casisa) and Filippo (Filippo Pucillo) are near-hooligan members of one of what appear to be the island’s two rival youth gangs. They’re also extremely protective of the honor of their mother and sister; they take swift action, for example, when Marinella shows an interest in a visiting policeman, and when Grazia’s increasingly erratic behavior leads the town to pressure Pietro to send her to the mainland for treatment, Pasquale actually helps her to escape to an isolated cave and then makes it appear that she’s died. It’s the grief arising from this, and the reaction to her miraculous reappearance, that restore the soul of the community.
Crialese obviously intends all this to have the texture of a timeless fable, but one with a touch of primitive realism as well as shimmering dreaminess. The combination doesn’t come off consistently, but enough of it works to make it fairly absorbing. Grazia is a difficult role–as much symbol as individual–and Golino plays her with a mixture of strength and fragility that keeps her sympathetic rather than irritating; Amato projects both ruggedness and vulnerability as her concerned (and jealous) husband. But it’s the youngsters–non-professionals with a wonderfully natural spirit–who outshine the adults. Casisa is beautifully understated as a boy at the edge of manhood, and Pucillo is delightful as the hilariously pugnacious Filippo. The supporting players have been expertly chosen; many of the faces are wonderfully expressive, even in the briefest glimpses. And the film looks so gorgeous that you might be inclined to add Lampedusa to your next European itinerary.
Parts of “Respiro” may strike you as affected or artificial, but enough of it pulses with the breath of life to make it a mostly vital, vivid experience.