In “Sicilian Ghost Story,” co-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s superb follow-up to 2013’s Critics’ Week prizewinner “Salvo,” the duo evocatively interweave the richness of fairy tales with the obscenity of Mafia control. Based on the 1993 kidnapping of 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, held by the Mafia for 779 days in the hopes of silencing his informant father, the film invents a classmate with a crush who refuses to sweep Giuseppe’s disappearance under the rug. Her bond with the kidnapped boy, manifested through fairy tale symbols — a forest, a cave, animals, a lake — seamlessly dovetails with reality, drawing to the surface the anguish of a lost life together with the disgraceful fact that we as a society allow ourselves not to be haunted by acts of inhumanity. “Ghost Story” deserves a conspicuous place on international art-house screens.
Comparisons will be made with a host of other films using Brothers Grimm tropes, most of all “Pan’s Labyrinth” for the way it combined fairy tales with Spanish fascism, and yet Grassadonia and Piazza steer clear of mythical creatures or a magical place existing alongside our own. Their evocation of children’s fables is more grounded in real countryside, and thanks to Luca Bigazzi’s fluid expertise with low-angle shots and slightly distorting lenses, well-modulated while never gratuitous, the filmmaking doesn’t simply tell a story but makes us feel its impact.
Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) follows Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) into the woods after school, watching him marvel at a butterfly on his hand as she’s startled by a ferret sniffing at her heels. If it sounds precious in the retelling, it’s not — magical, sure, but not cloying, and not because the pair are then menaced by a dog who’s just been gnawing on a dead rabbit. Animals don’t talk in “Sicilian Ghost Story” but they do bear witness, like a reappearing small owl, which recalls the bird’s association with Hades and Ovid’s description of it as a “sad omen to mankind.”
Luna’s Swiss mother Saveria (Sabine Timoteo) knows her daughter has a crush on Giuseppe and isn’t happy at all, though whether it’s because his father was a Mafia assassin or because he became a turncoat is never clear. Saveria is styled like the Wicked Stepmother: black hair parted in the middle and pulled back, her voice soft yet always angry, and as she offers her daughter an apple, the comparison is complete (while the name Saveria is the Italian female equivalent of Xavier, it’s hard to escape the way it resembles “severo,” or “severe”).
When Giuseppe disappears, Luna can’t get any answers. After weeks without word, she and best friend Loredana (Corinne Musallari) paper the town with flyers saying, “Giuseppe has disappeared, and what are you doing about it?”, but they’re met with silence. We know he’s been kidnapped by Mafia thugs dressed as cops, who’ve brought him to an abandoned half-built house where he’s kept chained, his captors hoping his father will stop talking (in the subtitles the father is referred to as a “supergrass,” a slang term for “informer” used in England but largely unknown in the U.S.). The code of silence in Sicily is so strong, even among those not involved with the Mafia, that everyone turns a blind eye except for Luna, who refuses to give up her desperate search.
The bond between the pair has a certain “Peter Ibbetson” quality: though separated, they know they’re thinking of each other, dreaming of each other, yet where to search, and who will help? The cusp-of-puberty love between the two protagonists (in the movie they’re 13 and 14) has an urgency that takes hold, adding significantly to the desire for safety. While the fairy tale parallels are the most obvious, the directors also emphasize links with the myth of Persephone, whose mother Demeter wandered in desperate search for her kidnapped daughter. Through no coincidence, the town where the film was shot, Troina, is not far from Lake Pergusa, where Hades abducted Persephone and through whose waters he brought his prize down to the underworld.
Unsurprisingly, underwater shots also figure throughout the movie, along with the late autumnal forest, with its troubling hints of Little Red Riding Hood. Bigazzi’s masterful lensing brings out all these evocations without fetishizing anything, adding disturbing layers to the horrific reality of the kidnapping. Nino (Andrea Falzone), one of Luna’s peers briefly helping her search, remarks that Sicily was once the playground of the gods, and perhaps the island should be left to the animals again. What’s not verbalized, but implied, is that this paradise is populated by ghosts and we, the living dead, have been all too willing to let those ghosts vanish.