director/writer: Emanuele Crialese; cinematographer: Fabio Zamarion; editor: Didier Ranz; music: John Surman; cast: Valeria Golino (Grazia), Vincenzo Amato (Pietro), Francesco Casisa (Pasquale), Veronica D’Agostino (Marinella), Filippo Pucillo (Filippo), Emma Loffredo (Nonna), Elio Germano (Pier-Luigi), Avy Marciano (Olivier); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Domenico Procacci; Sony Pictures Classics; 2002-France/Italy-in Italian with English subtitles)

“Though the story is warmly humanistic it is too paper thin to mean much.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Respiro means breath in Italian. It is a gorgeously shot but dull beach location film that is set in the fishing village of Lampedusa, an island off the coast of western Sicily. The Italian writer-director Emanuele Crialese, who studied film at NYU, creates a melodrama about mental illness that involves a nuclear family trying to deal with it in their own uneducated way while trying to act with compassion. It opens as a gang of boys play rough along the seacliffs and jump some smaller boys, even injuring one in the eye with a slingshot. The slingshot assassin is the 13-year-old Pasquale, an intense youngster who is often sullen and very protective of his free-spirited attractive mom Grazia (Valeria Golino). The sensuous woman suffers from a manic-depressive illness that is treated by injections that sedate her, as she either becomes too happy or sad. The youngest son is the feisty 10-year-old Filippo and the well-built teenage daughter is Marinella. Grazi’s bearded fisherman hubby is Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), a hunk who loves his wife but has a hard time dealing with her mood changes and reckless behavior. Pietro’s mother takes charge of the household whenever Grazia has one of those moody days where she can’t deal with her restrained life. On her happy days she can be seen skipping through town on her motorbike with at least two of the children on board.

Grazi frolics in the deserted beach with her sons while topless, which disturbs hubby when his fishing boat with his crew passes. In another incident, in the fishery, Grazia while cleaning fish has a temper tantrum with one of the gossipy lady workers who mentions that she’s being sent to Milan to a doctor for psychiatric treatment. Later, on an impulse, she asks two French tourists operating a sail boat to take her for a ride and is only prevented by her always vigilant and protective sons. What gets everyone in the village upset as her ongoing mental problems lose their previous charm, is when she goes to the dog pound and frees all the wild dogs. She does this as a reaction to her hubby bringing her once stray dog pet to the pound to be killed, which is the film’s main metaphor about her freedom compared to the rabid dogs herded together in the pound waiting to be executed. The villagers now all whisper that she’s a public menace and a raving lunatic, which prompts hubby to arrange for her to immediately see the psychiatric doctor in Milan recommended by the pharmacist. At the prospect of ending up in a mental hospital, the fearful Grazi runs away. When Pasquale is ordered by his dad to bring her back, he instead takes her to his secret cave hiding place and sneaks in food deliveries. She goes undetected for days until the search party discovers her dress on the beach and assumes she drowned, and the love for her comes pouring out by everyone in the village as they realize how much they miss her.

Emanuele Crialese won the Critic’s Week Grand Prize at the Cannes film festival for this simple fablelike story. Though the story is warmly humanistic it is too paper thin to mean much. The characters are never developed though the mostly nonprofessional actors provide fine naturalistic performances. The look of the film was seductive, from the Mediterranean beach to the stunningly attractive family and especially from a Sophia Loren looking Valeria Golino, but there didn’t seem to be anything else further to take away from this attempt to be mythic. Not only was sex promised but not delivered, but we didn’t even get a good look at Grazia’s bare chest in this PG-13 rated film nor did we look too deeply inside her head for some kind of psychological statement to be made.

Respiro Poster

REVIEWED ON 10/30/2003 GRADE: C+