Respiro

June, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Emanuele Crialese

Starring:Valeria Golino, Vincenzo Amato, Francesco Casisa, Veronica D'Agostino, Filippo Pucillo, Muzzi Loffredo, and Elio Germano

Be forewarned; if you see this curiously frustrating film by newcomer Emanuele Crialese, (a writer/director fresh from the New York University film school) you'll wind up feeling a bit schizophrenic. Why? Because Crialese really provides two stories here which are at war with one another, in tone if not in content. The first presents a rich, accessible examination of life in a small village on the island of Lampedusa, close by the shores of Tunisia in the southern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, that portion of the screenplay operates as mere backdrop to the director's principal plotline, which consists of a rather obscure examination of the life of a mercurial wife and mother whose often bizarre, freewheeling behavior causes considerable embarrassment to her family and ultimately becomes an affront to the conventional mores of her neighbors. Story # 1 is full of the kind of casual but precise detail that signals the arrival of a new, talented storyteller; Story #2 however, flounders in post-Ingmar Bergman symbolism better left behind at NYU.

The talented, (and gorgeous) Valeria Golino plays Grazia, wife of Pietro and mother to a teen-age daughter and two sons, Pasquale and pint-sized Pier-Luigi, who employs both mouth and macho to compensate for his diminutive stature. Grazia loves her family and they return her affection without being able to either understand or appreciate her frequently inexplicable behavior. Is she simply crazy? Suffering from mood swings because of early-onset menopause?  Or is it full-blown manic depression? The director never permits his talented leading lady to accurately diagnose her malady; instead, the audience receives more than a few suggestions that Crialese intends Grazia's unconventional behavior to symbolically imply that society's expectations of conventional propriety often lead to the suppression of individual self-expression.

Grazia's mood swings and erratic outbursts prompt her extended family to pressure Pietro into sending Grazia to Milan for treatment; before she's exiled, Grazia flees the village and abetted by her older son Pasquale, hides in a cave overlooking the sea. When a frantic search fails to locate her whereabouts, Pietro becomes convinced she's drowned; that evening the villagers follow him into a lemming-like search for his errant spouse that's as enigmatic as it is unsatisfying…. 

If you can set aside Grazia's distracting behavior, what remains is a warm and affectionate look at the villagers themselves, especially the young boys who make up the circle of friends around Grazia's sons. Capturing birds in intricate traps, forming cliques to torment each other, swimming beside the local fishing boats to wheedle a free bit of the day's catch, playing with a toy train Pier-Luigi wins in a lottery-- all these offhand bits of business convey a knowing sense of the warmth possible in small town life that's not unlike the best parts of Fellini's Amarcord; they're presented here with an acute attention to evocative detail and constitute by far the best part of the film. I was especially struck by the director's ability to reflect the nacesent machismo which emerges in the youngest member of Grazia's family; Pier Luigi yells at his teen-age sister, his mother and grandmother in tones suggesting that, despite his age, he's already a "man" in the family who's obligated to guard its female members' supposed sexual vulnerability whether they like it or not. Their silent acquiesce in this pre-schooler's haranguing speaks volumes about how deeply-rooted male dominance develops in a culture….

The Critic's Week Program at Cannes 2002 honored this film with its grand prize. That's over-praising an emerging talent in my view; because of the often conflicting blend of its ingredients, Respiro ultimately becomes a rather disappointing main dish, albeit one served in a delicious sauce all the more memorable because it hints at a new chef's potential.

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