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Sicilian Survivor: Valeria Golino plays a woman struggling to define herself in 'Respiro.'

Once on an Island

In Emanuele Crialese's 'Respiro,' a free-spirited woman fights to breathe free in a tradition-bound village

By Richard von Busack

THIS VILLAGE on the island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily looks both sensual and frightening. Superficially, it's looks like a perfect Mediterranean vacation spot: hot white sand, clear blue water and cloudless skies. You don't have to wear too many clothes, and there are no high-rises in sight.

While director/writer Emanuele Crialese celebrates the natural beauty of Lampedusa in Respiro, he's never too dazzled by the sun and the water to forget the rigidness of this island--how very outside an outsider would be. Lampedusa is the kind of place where if a woman swims topless, the locals will be telling their grandchildren about the day they saw it happen.

The island is particularly rough for the boy children. These feral kids, who run in small armies, remind one of the children who devoured Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer. They fight battles royal in the ruins of never-to-be-completed cinder-block dwellings. They rip off each other's pants and march the losers home naked, or try to shoot each others' eyes out with slingshots.

In the first scene, they're gathering sparrows out of deadfall traps, to roast on sticks for a snack; you've seen more pity for the prey in a cat's eyes. Even in modern Europe, the kids are so poor that it's a neighborhood event when one of them wins a battery-powered toy train--the kind that could be bought at MacFrugals for $14.

The men are no-nonsense fishermen. Like anyone who lives on an island, they're especially sensitive to any offense or cause for gossip. And no one causes more gossip than Grazia (Valeria Golino), wife of the respected fisherman Pietro (Vincenzo Amato). As the name suggests, Grazia is a woman in a state of grace. She's the pretty, ebullient mother of three children: the almost adolescent Pasquale (Francesco Casisa), who is our entry point into this story; a teenage daughter eager to go wild (Veronica D'Agostino); and a tough shrimp named Filippo (Filippo Pucillo).

Grazia is deeply affectionate to children and to stray dogs (the usual island custom is to lock abandoned dogs in a dungeon until someone feels like taking them or killing them). She tries to claim some of the privileges of the men, to join them when they drink beer and talk, or to swim in her underwear with her boy children. (Don't expect erotica; Crialese uses a long lens for this scene.) Obviously her behavior would only be considered artistic, or lovably eccentric, elsewhere. In this village, bathing a dog or putting lipstick on a child during a party is considered deviant behavior.

The attack on machismo is pointed but not overpowering. You learn what you need to know about male privilege by watching Pasquale take over his mom's life. He knows his duty as a man, and this 13-year-old doesn't have a shred of doubt about telling his mother to lie down and let him decide what needs to be done.

Grazia is touched with epilepsy--wasn't that supposed to be, mythically, a sign of divine favor? The film also raises a question about her moodiness: she sulks in her bed and is prone to rages. The village persuades her loyal but unhappy husband that Grazia ought to be taken up to the cold north, to a mental hospital in Milan.

There are so many films about holy idiots, whose insanity is purer than the sanity of those around them. It's hard not to be impatient with these films, because they're so rigged; the mentally ill are invariably cute, and the people who oppose them are invariably vicious. Respiro would be unwatchable if Grazia were only a feminist martyr, a pretty Blanche Dubois backed against the wall by a village of Stanley Kowalskis.

Still, at times, Golino acts as if she sees Grazia just that simply. Golino is a Neapolitan actress, best known as the love interest in Rain Man, another one of those holy-fool movies. Crialese needed a star actress in his nonprofessional cast, someone to make Grazia stand out from the crowd even when she wasn't doing anything. But that star quality sometimes makes Respiro almost too easy, since a star is someone you're always sure is in the right. Respiro works best when you are uncertain about Grazia's sanity, when you see her as her neighbors do--as a fancy girl, a nuisance who doesn't know how to control herself.

The title implies that it's hard for a free person to breathe on this tradition-bound island. After going to Lampedusa to get away from it all, the director heard a local legend about a madwoman cured by prayer and decided to adapt it. He notes that what he intended wasn't to make your typical Italian neorealist film, but something more like what he called "a legend."

He's made both at once, successfully. Crialese gives as much as a prime novelist would: a vivid image of life on this island, how people live and work, what the rules are. Chief of Crialiese's gifts is that he's an excellent storyteller. It's a rare quality in today's directors--missing in artists like Lars von Trier, for example, who is equally fond of hypnotic seascapes and persecuted madwomen.

Respiro (PG-13; 90 min.), directed and written by Emanuele Crialese, photographed by Fabio Zamarion and starring Valeria Golino and Vincenzo Amato, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the June 12-18, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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