Respiro Movie Review
A grim yet hopeful, fablistic slice-of-life drama from Italian writer-director Emanuele Crialese ("Once We Were Strangers"), "Respiro" stars Valeria Golino (best known in the US for "Rain Man" and "Hot Shots!") as Grazia, a passionate, misunderstood, unstable young mother whose adoring husband and teenage son try to protect her from the scorn of their Mediterranean island fishing village.
It's a struggling but uncomplicated place of hard lives where the worst problem is rival gangs of bored, wayward, stray-dog-like boys. But the gossipy populace finds itself increasingly concerned with the bipolar behavior of the beautiful, stormy Grazia, who is unpredictable and prone to both acute joy and dangerous fits of melancholy.
But she takes comfort in the love of her fisherman husband (Vincenzo Amato), who defends her honor even when embarrassed by her, and in her special relationship with her teenage son Pasquale (Francesco Casisa). So devoted is the young man to his mother that he stays home to paint her toenails as a pick-me-up when she takes to her bed in a deep blue funk. So dependent on Pasquale is Grazia that she clings to him needily as he drives her around the village on his Vespa day after day.
But after she causes a local fiasco, unleashing a pack of feral dogs on the town by freeing them from a torturous kennel, her loyal husband waffles (at the goading of his live-in mother) and agrees to commit Grazia to psychiatric care in Milan. The decision begets a fateful chain of events as Pasquale helps his mother run away, leading her to one of his favorite hiding places on the beautiful but rocky and rugged island. Then he plants her dress on the beach to imply that she has drowned -- breaking the spirit and the heart of his guilt-riddled father.
Based on a local myth from the island where Crialese shot the film (Lampedusa, near western Sicily), "Respiro" has a spicy, sweaty, sun-baked sense of place and an air of magical realism, both of which enhance its central themes of love, passion, perception and faith.
While young Casisa gives a moving performance as Pasquale -- through whose eyes the story is told -- the picture's most powerful emotions come in Amato's all-consuming grief as the husband. Yet Golino so embodies Grazia's independence, hope and devotion (in spite of the woman's troubled psyche) that even though "Respiro" seems set on a course toward misfortune, she feels like an angel watching over the outcome.
Crialese takes one major misstep, however, that so imperils the movie's emotional authenticity that it cannot be ignored: He fails to show any reactions to Grazia's apparent death in her other two children, Pasquale's little brother and spitfire coming-of-age sister. While their father is falling apart, they seem to have no reaction at all. Unless I missed some plot point that explains away their indifference, Crialese missed the boat in a big way with this omission.
"Respiro" resonates with enough soul and feeling to have a memorable impact in spite of this shortcoming. But it is impossible to disregard.