starring Valeria Golino, Vincenzo Amato, Francesco Casisa, Veronica D'Agostino
written and directed by Emanuele Crialese
by Walter Chaw Emanuele Crialese's Respiro has the rhythm and the pulse of the southern Italian island on which it was filmed. It is all of breathtaking panoramas and impossible colours, and in the middle of it is Greek-Italian actress Valeria Golino evoking, in a career-defining performance, late countrywoman Gina Lollobrigida. (Golino would have been a far better choice than Penelope Cruz in the remake of Fanfan la Tulipe, currently not-wowing audiences at Cannes.) A film by turns savage and languid, for the first part it seems as though the film, with its clashing bands of shirtless youths, will be a reworking of The War, but then it becomes more a metaphor for grief and redemption in a feral environment fettered for too long by men and their illusions of cities.
Grazia (Golino) is the mother to two boys (Pasquale (Francesco Casisa) and Filippo (Filippo Pucillo)) and a young woman (Marinella (Veronica D'Agostino)) coming into her sexuality during one sweltering summer that finds Grazia packing fish while her husband, Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), is off fishing or drinking with his friends. Older Pasquale and younger Filippo while away the blue-and-white days engaged in endless skirmishes with another group of boys, enduring thrashings from the violence-prone Pietro and trying to keep winsome, wandering Grazia from getting into trouble with a gossipy village.
Respiro is a simple film with simple metaphors and images: the packs of roving children set against the packs of wild dogs rounded up and, in one difficult scene, slaughtered in the streets of this idyllic setting; the freedom of the ocean compared to the uninhibited Grazia. Yet its simplicity shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of ambition; indeed, the picture is unusually courageous in its free-narrative and matter-of-fact spirituality, finding its post-romanticist sublimity in a few final images that suggest depths and avenues for investigation as bracing as they are mysterious. The picture in its way is an evocation of Wallace Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West"--Golino's Grazia cast as Stevens's "she" ("She measured to the hour its solitude/She was the single artificer of the world/In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea/Whatever self it had, became the self/That was her song, for she was the maker"), that which surpasses the "Blessed rage for order" of men and their attempts to frame the ephemeral.
Unpredictable and rife with the air of the unrehearsed, Respiro is more experience than scholarship, in the end--a picture that cherishes the cinematic flourish as much as the poignant phrase. It trusts its pauses and the viewer to interpret them, enough so that I suspect it would be as successful if not more so as a silent film (or one scored just with ambient noise). In many ways a brilliant film, its star is Golino and her wild shock of hair and Crialese's (and cinematographer Fabio Zamarion's) Caleb Deschanel-esque natural compositions. A caesura of sorts in the middle of a sea of CGI and bombast, Respiro is, as its title might imply, a breath of fresh air and for a moment at least, a cure for what ails. Originally published: May 23, 2003.