A seductively evocative mood piece set on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, “Respiro (Grazia’s Island)” sketches with delicacy and skill the deep bonds of a loving family, the lazy rhythms of life in an isolated fishing community and both the tranquillity and torpor of an environment seemingly untouched by the passage of time. Following his 1998 Sundance entry “Once We Were Strangers,” New York-trained Emanuele Crialese’s first feature in his native Italy is a small but distinctive drama that displays a firm command of his cast, an arresting visual sense and an admirable avoidance of facile sentiment or cliche. The physical setting’s striking blend of treeless starkness and sun-drenched beauty could prove alluring to adventurous arthouse distribs seeking unusual foreign-language fare.
At a time when many young Italian filmmakers are focusing on the narrow concerns and standard relationship problems of bourgeois urbanites, writer-director Crialese refreshingly explores the complex map of emotional ties within a family that exists outside of modern society and is subject to its own rules.
He uses unspoken feelings and subtle gestures rather than self-aware dialogue to communicate his themes. The time frame seems intentionally imprecise: The story could be taking place at any point in the past 30 years.
Central figure is free-spirited Grazia (Valeria Golino), a mother of three and a fragile soul who’s “too happy when she’s up and too sad when she’s down.” Driven by the desire to bring joy to those she loves — her husband Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), her children and the mangy dogs that hang around their house — Grazia’s violent convulsions during moments of extreme anxiety cause concern within her family while her unpredictable nature and sudden mood swings attract animosity from the villagers. When Pietro bows to pressure to send her to Milan for treatment, Grazia runs away, relying on her adolescent son Pasquale (Francesco Casisa) to hide and protect her.
Concrete narrative incident is minimal, with Crialese instead teasing out the drama in a loosely flowing, lyrical style and building a rich mosaic of life in the community through unintrusive observation. The film’s portrait of the island kids and their network of friends and enemies is particularly effective and full of fresh, natural humor as they goof off around the port, wait for returning fishing boats, scamper across the rocky cliffs and combine innocent pastimes with cruel, more brutal games.
Speaking in thick Sicilian dialect, and appearing more relaxed than she often does, Golino is both touching and captivating, her understated performance providing a center to the drama without upsetting the balance or the broader view of what is essentially a portrait of family and community.
What really distinguishes the material is the economy and incisiveness with which all the characters are drawn. Pietro has a hint of the stern, disciplinarian qualities and the volatility of stock Sicilian fathers as well as some of the standard male tribal instincts. But these are tempered by a certain quiet sweetness and gentleness, and an easy sexiness in his body language around his wife.
Amato, who also starred in Crialese’s first film, effortlessly embodies this dual nature and has no actor-ish mannerisms to strain his credibility as a rugged fisherman.
Remaining non-professional cast is impeccably handled, especially the three principal kids. Relations between them, with their parents and, in particular, the boys’ quasi-romantic, fiercely protective feelings for their child-mother are beautifully rendered. As 13-year-old Pasquale, Casisa conveys the poignant uncertainty of impending adulthood; Veronica D’Agostino has amusing moments as his older sister, discovering her sexuality and using it to mesmerize a nervous, inexperienced young carabiniere; and Filippo Pucillo is pure delight as their scrappy young brother.
Backed by strong work from d.p. Fabio Zamarion, the director shows sharp but pleasingly unfussy visual instincts, underlining the imposing physical beauty and harshness of the setting without overdoing the postcard aspect. Some of the underwater imagery is especially beautiful. Atmospheric use is made of a saxophone-and-synth composition by ambient-jazz musician John Surman.