One of the world’s most gorgeous women, Valeria Golino, plays Grazia, the resident free spirit on the island of Lampedusa, in Respiro, which took the Critics Week Award and two other prizes at Cannes. The film accurately portrays Grazia as mentally distressed and distraught, given to bouts of willfulness; but this feminist fable, written and directed by Emanuele Crialese, encompasses the pertinent ambiguity: Are the other islanders, including her spouse, responding to her difficulties, or is their hostile attitude the cause of those difficulties? Both are the case—the only justification for the ambiguity. Certainly Grazia must put up with the most vicious mother-in-law this side of the one Anita Laurenzi played in Marco Bellocchio’s Devil in the Flesh (1986). Nor, as much as he loves her, is Grazia’s husband, Pietro, any rock of support. Like everyone else, he obsesses on his wife’s antic behavior to the exclusion of any consideration of the root causes. Pietro is just as willful as Grazia, the difference being that patriarchal conventions bolster his willfulness while constantly challenging hers. When Grazia’s dog crowds the space in the bed Pietro claims solely for himself and Grazia, he kills the dog, with none of the island neighbors any the wiser. It’s his home, his bed, and he can do what he likes there. But, in retaliation, Grazia goes too far, releasing a horde of stray dogs from their enclosure, resulting in a cold-blooded holocaust as the men of the island unconsciously assert their masculine prerogative vis-à-vis everyone else by shooting down all the freed animals. The town decides something serious has to be done about Grazia, who, unconsciously perhaps, has brought the island insanity out into the open of the social arena. The town decides she must be sent to Milan for psychiatric evaluation.
Grazia rejects an idea that might compromise her freedom. Yes, hers is an anguished, brittle freedom, but it is all in that line that she has—her only bulwark against the traditions and conventions that perpetually dog her. Is she so erratic and irrational as everyone claims? Yes, she has fits, for each of which she is held down so that Pietro can inject her with a shot of something to calm her. Yes, these fits are horrific, coming seemingly out of the blue. But do they? The first one we see erupts right after Pietro has taken a belt to their 14-year-old son, Pasquale (Francesco Casisa, both charming and heartbreaking). Look at her through the right eye, and Grazia appears nuts, out of control. Look at her through the left, and Grazia appears full of grace.
Grazia and Pietro have three children, in fact, and this fact complicates matters, for, whatever the cause of Grazia’s problems, they are problems she visits on her offspring. Pasquale is the middle child, and it is he who protects his mother to the point of literal exhaustion, hiding her in a cave when she refuses to be sent to Milan, bringing her food, arranging to make it look as if she has drowned, and withstanding as best he can his father’s grief and mourning. (Pasquale tells his mother that her disappearance has resulted in a sea-change on the island as to how she is viewed. Now Grazia is considered a saint!) The eldest child is a daughter, Marinella, who is smitten with a young police officer newly assigned to the island. But there is an obstacle to the budding romance: Filippo, the youngest child, in whom Crialese brilliantly allows us to see the whole male-prerogative thing that has tormented Marinella’s mother for years—for all her life, probably. Filippo is just a nasty little boy, but he self-righteously feels obliged to come in between Marinella and her policeman. Sex isn’t the issue; Filippo isn’t protecting the sanctity of his sister’s virginity. (Only Grazia and Pietro are shown having sex.) He is simply—horrifyingly—asserting his power as a future Italian man.
There is more to the film besides. The island is impoverished, the lives of its inhabitants a daily struggle. This is thematically relevant, too, because the poverty deepens the resolve of struggling fishermen like Pietro to hold onto the traditions that offset a bit their sense of impotence and hopelessness. Socially, things have progressed farther on the mainland, but, at least according to the world this film conjures, things remain especially backward on Lampedusa.
At the heart of Respiro is a vivid performance by Golino, who, years ago, you may recall, gave the best performance in Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988), as the younger brother’s girlfriend. But there is something else at the heart of this film: glimmers and glints of Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1949). Not funny, the irony is this: women remain oppressed.
And also at the heart are glimmers and glints of Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1947), in which a boy is asked to shoulder a burden too great for any 12-year-old to sustain. Edmund’s suicide in Rossellini’s film hovers over Crialese’s, perhaps predicting Pasquale’s own sad end, especially given the film’s ambiguous finale—a fantasy underwater, in which, depending on your point of view, everyone is imagined either free or drowned.
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