As unique as the paradise she lived in.
Winner of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival Critics Week Award and the official selection of the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, director Emanuele Crialese brings us Respiro, the story of life on a paradise island and the woman brave enough to embrace it.
Facts of the Case
Respiro is the tale of life on the island paradise of Lampedusa (205 miles off the coast of Sicily and in reality much closer to Africa than Italy), a world where clear, blue water crashes against sandy beaches and secret seaside caves to join the earth to the blue heavens above. In the middle of this paradise lives Grazia (Valeria Golino, Frida, Rain Man, Immortal Beloved), a free-spirited (or crazy) mother who is the central focus of the island's gossip. After some reckless incidents that the town determines are a threat to their future and prosperity, Grazia's husband Pietro (Vincenzo Amato) and his family decide to send her to a doctor in far-off Milan for psychological treatment. Wanting absolutely no part of this, Grazia runs away and hides with the help of her oldest son Pasquale (Francesco Casisa).
The performances in Respiro are amazing. Since the film is a character drama, it relies very heavily on the interaction and chemistry between the characters. Although I am not fluent in Italian, I did get the feeling during the length of the film that it was poorly subtitled, which generated a weightier requirement for strong character interaction. Golino is extremely convincing, both as a mother and a wife. And, even through his character's machismo, Amato still manages to convince us that he does on some level, love Grazia. Casisa's performance is also extremely touching. In the role of Pasquale, he had perhaps the most important supporting role in the film, and he does an amazing job transitioning from violent interaction with other youths on the island to tender and more poignant interactions with his mother Grazia.
The island of Lampedusa and the story of Respiro is an agglomeration of opposites. The island life contrasts paradise and poverty, madness and sanity, tenderness and violence. We see Grazia, a free spirit, who chooses to revel in the paradise that she calls home. In contrast to her, we have her husband Pietro and the rest of the villagers that live in Lampedusa. Although they are hard working, they live their lives in poverty, unaware of the richness that surrounds them. Grazia is portrayed in the movie as suffering from some sort of mental disorder; it is never clarified what her husband and his family believes she has, but it the film alludes to the possibility of a bipolar disorder. The audience is allowed to see Grazia in a different context than her husband and the rest of the villagers though. We are invited to see a more personal side, and are tempted with the idea that she may not be clinically ill, but instead a passionate woman who will not allow poverty to disrupt her enjoyment of paradise. She swims topless, loves her children and her dogs. She is not insane, just impulsive and a little overtly emotional.
To really develop an appreciation for the world of Lampedusa, the viewer must process several different themes. Previously mentioned is the contrast between poverty and paradise and sanity and madness, but even more strongly present is the island's depiction of an underworld/afterlife and rebirth/resurrection. The act of swimming in the ocean surrounding the island in the film is almost always represents a rebirth, if not in body, in spirit. Grazia's disappearance to one of the island's caves is a symbolic death, not of her, but of the town that she lives in. While we see Grazia living in a cave (an underworld true to the tradition of Roman mythology), it is not her death that Crialese seems to be symbolizing, but the death of the villagers. This is not a death in the sense that their life is ending, but in the sense that their life as they know it is ending. They are undergoing a change of mind so radical that, previously, in order to avoid her captivating passion, the villagers had insisted that Grazia be sent away.
Respiro is Crialese's attempt at combining the divine and the mundane, or a magical paradise with earthly poverty, and he succeeds. Through his imagery and the chemistry between the beautiful people in the film, the audience is thoroughly drawn in to the magic of Lampedusa. Crialese very artfully combines influences from Greek and Roman mythology with more modern religious symbolism. While some of these combinations may seem out of place in real life, Crialese is telling the modern fairy tale: appropriateness has different standards in his fantasy setting. His ideas interact beautifully against the simple life of the island villagers and the blue waves crashing in the film's backdrop.
On the whole, the video quality was absolutely amazing. Flesh tones were true, and the shot composition was breathtaking. (When can I move to Lampedusa?) I did note that in some scenes, mainly due to the shot composition, the subtitles were extremely difficult to read—yellow on earth tones is never a good idea. The blues were very true and breathtakingly gorgeous, and the shadows were rich and dark. The sound quality in on the DVD was excellent. I am sure that if I understood Italian perfectly, I would have had no problem understanding any of the dialogue. Respiro also had an amazing soundtrack that really brought to life the island. The Italian music really captures the sense of romance that Grazia feels for her life and the paradise that she lives in and brings the emotions and chemistry alive more than the films dialogue could by itself.
The film had very little in the way of extras. There were three movie trailers, one of which was for Respiro itself. For any DVD, I consider a director's commentary, or at least interviews with the director and the actors a must, especially any film made within the last five years.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My roommate, who watched the movie with me, felt that there wasn't a detailed enough story to make an entire feature film interesting. She isn't much of foreign film buff, so you don't have to take her word for it.
I really loved Respiro. It had little in the way of extras (even for a foreign film, there is really no excuse for that anymore), but I really recommend this one. If you like this type of movie—the modern fairy tale—it's one that you will potentially watch again and again.
As a story and a film, Respiro is free to go. Emanuele Crialese will be held without bail until we get the interview.
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