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    Troppo beautiful for you

    The gorgeous cast of "Respiro" clash with their craggy Sicilian neighbors, and the film's magical elements don't live comfortably next to its realistic ones either.


    (Originally reviewed at the New Directors/New Films festival at Lincoln Center in April 2003.)

    N.Y.U. film-school grad Emanuele Crialese ("Once We Were Strangers"), returns to his native Italy for his sophomore effort, "Respiro." The film retells an old Sicilian legend about the island of Lampedusa, where the inhabitants believe a young mother is crazy because she constantly breaks the stringent rules of their insular community. One day she disappears, leaving only a pile of clothing on the beach, and the townsfolk feel tremendous guilt at having driven her to suicide. Their grief and their prayers bring the woman back from the sea to be restored to her family. A charmingly simple little fable, eh? But simple is often the hardest to do.

    Written and directed by: Emanuele Crialese.
    Cast: Valeria Golino, Vincenzo Amato, Francesco Casisa, Veronica D'Agostino, Filippo Pucillo, Muzzi Loffredo, Elio Germano.
    In Italian with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site | Official site (French)
    New Directors / New Films 2003
  • Angela
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  • Camp
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  • Respiro

  • Festival site
  • Lampedusa resembles the island used by Gillo Pontecorvo for his 1957 neo-realistic masterpiece, "The Wide Blue Road." But where Pontecorvo's film presents only the harsh reality of the sparse lives of the island's fishermen and their families, Crialese works hard to offset that reality by playing up the island's dusty beauty. He inserts some vaguely magical moments (including several idyllic underwater escapades) to highlight the quirky antics of his luscious heroine. And therein lies the problem. The realistic lives of the lead characters effectively overwhelm most of the whimsy he tries to create, where none inherently exists.

    The film opens with a scene straight out of "Lord of the Flies," as two warring groups of feral boys enact ritual acts of aggression against each other. To celebrate, the winning gang catches, cooks and eats a slew of tiny birds, before two of the gang members return home to mamma. Grazia (Valeria Golina), is the unbelievably beautiful and seductive mother of three sun-bronzed kids and we're quickly shown some of her "differences." Mother and all three kids constantly pile onto a tiny Vespa and tool around town, thereby breaking local traffic laws. Elsewhere, she reveals a penchant for stripping on the beach to swim topless with her sons. Perhaps the most egregious example of Grazia's free spirit invloves her two dogs. In a town where dogs are hated and reviled, she loves them, and keeps two in the house. The townsfolk have imprisoned all the town's dogs except hers and through an impetuous act of kindness, Grazia inadvertently causes all the dogs to be shot.

    Grazia's fisherman-husband Pietro (Vincenzo Amato) is almost as beautiful as she is. They're like a pair of models from a Calvin Klein ad — another magical touch. And we know they really love each other because they take a lot of afternoon "naps." The kids are also "molto" attractive. Pasquale (Francesco Casisa), the sensitive older boy, is as handsome as his dad while Marinella (Veronica D'Agostino), the ripe teen-aged daughter, already has a chest way bigger than mom's. All this beauty underscores the magical element, while the younger brother Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), is a stock Italian film clich — the smartass potty-mouthed little kid. Most of the remaining islanders do manifest the requisite craggy character looks one expects in films about sun-drenched Sicilian Islands.

    With her crooked grin, laughing eyes and killer bod, we're obviously meant to empathize with Grazia, but she really does seem a bit nuts and she certainly is in need of help. It soon becomes apparent that Grazia has real emotional problems and may well be a manic-depressive. Although no medical terms are ever used, her family knows something's wrong when they continually have subdue her with some kind of shots whenever she goes too far. They want her to go see a doctor in Milan, but she runs away, leaving her clothing on the beach just like the woman in the legend. In Crialese's version, son Pasquale helps his mother hide in a cave. (There's also an obvious Oedipal thing going on between Grazia and the adolescent Pasquale, but no one in the film seems to notice.)

    "Respiro" won the Critic's Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but despite its gorgeous cinematography and some excellent acting (Golina won several European Festival Best Actor Awards), for this earthbound realist, Crialese ultimately fails in his earnest attempt to make a good marriage between the magical and the realistic. Too many loose ends remain. Perhaps an earthier pair of actors playing Grazia and Pietro — say, a young Magnani coupled with Giannini pre — would have provided a better stage for underscoring the dichotomy between Crialese's warring elements. As it stands, the ethereal Golina's Grazia is beaten down by the weight of her real illness, which remains uncured.

    MARCH 27, 2003

    Reader comments on Respiro:

  • wonderful movie   from tommy, Jun 2, 2003
  • Respiro   from Duncan, Jun 8, 2003
  • Re: Respiro   from , Jun 23, 2003
  • this is a very poor review of a great movie   from marco, Jun 29, 2003
  • translation   from nancy, Nov 11, 2003
  • Re: translation   from Molly, Feb 28, 2004
  • missed entire point!   from stacey, Apr 9, 2004
  • Re: missed entire point!   from Joe, Jun 8, 2005
  • [no subject]   from Jay, Aug 14, 2004
  • Choking on too much beauty   from kit, Nov 27, 2004
  • Strange that Cannes favored it...   from Michael Cstaz, Jun 24, 2005
  • [no subject]   from , Oct 30, 2006
  • reviewer should do research   from anna, Jan 19, 2008
  • I agree   from Lena, Feb 24, 2008
  • She is clearly ill   from Pat T, May 18, 2008

  • Post a comment on "Respiro"