- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

There is an old Italian proverb: “Pleasure and melons want the same weather.”

On Lampedusa, the rocky, sun-drenched island off the western coast of Sicily where Emanuele Crialese’s “Respiro” is set, there are no melons, and the pleasure is restricted to Saturday nights.

The men fish; the women pack the fish … world without end, amen.

If the characters weren’t speaking Italian, one easily could assume the scraggly bearded menfolk with George Hamilton-grade tans were living in Palestine in A.D. 30.

Into this daily rhythm of rustic drudgery Mr. Crialese drops his spunky, sensual wild card of a heroine, Grazia, played by Italian beauty Valeria Golina (of “Rain Man” and “Hot Shots” renown).

A free-spirited, carefree and spur-of-the-moment mother of three, Grazia is also manic-depressive. (Where would movies be without this malady?)

She tools around on her Vespa with too many hangers-on and has a wink-wink rapport with the cops; when the feeling hits, she goes skinny-dipping, much to the chagrin — and maybe the confused arousal — of her oldest son, teenage Pasquale (Francesco Casisa).

When another feeling hits, Grazia also throws violent fits and spontaneously smashes kitchenware until she needs to be sedated by syringe.

Grazia is a handful, and when she lets loose a pack of dogs penned in a local kennel, the villagers finally say enough’s enough.

Egged on by his gossipy mother, Grazia’s husband, Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), reluctantly agrees to ship his wife off to Milan, where it’s hinted she may find help for her affliction.

Mr. Amato is a wonderful meld of quiet compassion and manly hard-boiledness. Pietro’s relationship with Grazia is sexually healthy but fraught with complications born of her illness.

How nice it is to see an on-screen marriage that looks something like real life: In Grazia’s calmer moments, there is no gitchy-goo dialogue, just the knowing looks and gestures that long-married couples communicate to each other.

Mr. Crialese observes his subjects like an anthropologist documentarian, with an eye for both the telling details and the broad social structure of the island community.

Tangential to the plotline but essential for the movie’s overall tone, the director shows slightly disturbing scenes of boys wrestling and de-pants-ing each other, evidently a hazing rite for adolescent Lampedusans.

At night, the boys haggle with a sidewalk lottery vendor to win a train set, while the girls offer them temporary tattoos.

Such are the simple, low-tech pleasures, diversions and rituals in the Mediterranean equivalent of rural America.

Up to this point, “Respiro” is flawless.

After naturalistically limning the communal, sometimes dreary confines of the island, Mr. Crialese then veers off into the hokey quasi-supernatural.

There’s an old Lampedusan legend that a woman — the local crazy, a la Grazia — once disappeared, leaving her clothes on the beach. According to the tale, the townspeople assume responsibility for driving her to suicide. After everyone prays for her to return to life, the woman re-emerges from the sea.

Inspired by this fable, Mr. Crialese has Grazia, abetted by loyal Pasquale, flee to a cave hideout, a desperate alternative to medical treatment in a faraway city.

A search party led by Pietro finds an article of Grazia’s clothing on the beach, a remnant of her previous skinny-dipping lark, and concludes she took her own life.

Grief-stricken, Pietro and the villagers hold a kind of fire festival (an antecedent to the modern candlelight vigil?), hoping to conjure up Grazia.

The balletic climax, a beautifully executed scene shot underwater, is nice to watch, but it seems like a betrayal of the neorealist method to which Mr. Crialese devoted himself for the better part of this intriguing, mostly satisfying movie.

.

Movies / Scott Galupo

TITLE: “Respiro”

RATING: PG-13 (Nudity; mature themes of mental illness, violent fits)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Emanuele Crialese. Produced by Dominic Process. Cinematography by Fabio Zamarion. Original music by John Surman.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes, in Italian with English subtitles.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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