One of the movies I’ve studied during the last months was Sicilian Ghost Story, written and directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. I also had the fortune of attending a talk by Piazza himself, where he revealed technical and behind-the-scene details and explained their choice of dealing with a tough subject in the way they did.
The movie is based on the short story Un cavaliere bianco, found in the collection Non saremo confusi per sempre, in which the author, Marco Mancassola, retells famous, tragic Italian cases in a fairytale-like manner. That is also what Grassadonia and Piazza chose to do when adapting the Mafia kidnapping of 13-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo to film.
Young love and adult deception
Sicily, 1990s. Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) fancies her classmate Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez). The shy girl confesses her love in a letter which she gives him when they’re in a forest and Giuseppe receives it with the genuine enthusiasm that only a happy-go-lucky boy like him can show.
The forest, with its high trees and greenery, is the perfect spot for a deep connection between the two. However, it also harbours an impending danger in the form of a ferocious dog that chases them away, seeming to foreshadow what’s to come.
In fact, after this day, Giuseppe disappears. As days go by and his seat in class remains empty, Luna starts to ask questions; first to her parents (Vincenzo Amato and Sabine Timoteo) and then around the village. Everyone seems to know something, but no one wants to speak. After all, everyone knows who Giuseppe’s father is, a former Mafia member, now a pentito (a witness collaborating with the government).
Frustrated by the silence in her community, Luna, together with her best friend Loredana (Corinne Musallari), searches for Giuseppe. But as she delves deeper into this mystery, she’s driven closer to the edge. The edge of the real world, perhaps even the edge of her sanity. Will her parents and other adults believe her? Will Loredana stay by her side? And will Luna ever find Giuseppe?
A dreamlike atmosphere
As already said, the basis of Sicilian Ghost Story is a real case that happened in Italy a couple of decades ago. I won’t say more about it to avoid spoilers, but if you Google ‘Giuseppe Di Matteo’, you will find all the details. The thought of the Sicilian Mafia already makes us shudder (and the awful high-profile killings of Falcone and Borsellino come to mind); think of a child being the victim and the horror doubles up.
The filmmakers felt that it was impossible to narrate such a terrible event, hence why they opted to add fantasy elements. The result is a dark Grimm-esque fairytale with stunning visuals, enchanting natural landscapes (the forest, the lake, the Sicilian countryside) and folkloristic symbolism (such as the owl which Luna keeps hidden in her basement).
Water is the leitmotif that runs throughout the whole film. It often serves as a warning of danger (the constant dripping in the basement under Luna’s house is downright eerie), as well as a link between this world and the other, darker world, where Giuseppe is held captive. It is the lake, in fact, that beckons Luna, convincing her that diving into the water will take her to her love.
The gritty underworld
While we’re following Luna’s quest, we also see where Giuseppe is held and how his captors treat him. The young boy’s only consolation and a reason for hope is rereading Luna’s letter, which he still had in his pocket when he was kidnapped. But how long can he keep hoping in such dire conditions?
Despite the fantastic qualities of the film, the criminality is shown in all its gritty reality. If you’re a classic Mafia film fan, forget most of what you’ve seen before. That’s because masterpieces such as The Godfather still remain a romanticised version of the real Mafia. As far as realistic depictions of crime go, Sicilian Ghost Story is somewhat similar to Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah. However, while Gomorrah verges on hyperrealism and is bleak from start to end, the disturbing scenes in Grassadonia/Piazza movie are balanced with dreamish visions as seen from the perspective of an adolescent, not with the intention to invalidate the violence but to offer a glimmer of hope.
Rendering justice to the victim
Sicilian Ghost Story has received worldwide acclaim, especially for its cinematography, and it has been compared, amongst others, to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. It opened the 56th International Critics’ Week at Cannes Film Festival and won a David di Donatello award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Some viewers may fail to see the importance of combining a true story with fantasy or deem it insufficiently adequate. Yet, the point of the movie is not just to retell the story of Giuseppe Di Matteo, but to explore the Sicilian reality through the eyes of adolescents. It aims to show how the new generation is willing to defeat the culture of omertà (secrecy) that plagues Southern Italy (and other corners of the world, for that matter). The fantastical storytelling is in line with how a young teenager sees the world. On the other hand, it is suitable in this case because it renders justice to the victim without any exploitation or sensationalism. The only weakness, if one can call it that, is that at times the boundaries between reality and imagination are so blurred that it becomes hard to follow the story.
With a balanced cast of young emerging actors and veterans, an excellent original soundtrack by Soap&Skin, and striking visuals, Sicilian Ghost Story adds quality to the contemporary Italian cinema and offers viewers a heart-wrenching story that must never be forgotten.
Sicilian Ghost Story is currently showing in selected cinemas in the UK, Ireland and Malta (Eden Cinemas).