In and out. Respiro, as its title suggests, is about breathing, in a spiritual, vivacious sense. Inspired by an Italian folktale, Emanuele Crialese’s film is at once vibrant and delicate, a study of a family unraveling and a fearfully traditional culture. Winner of the 2002 Cannes Critics Week award, it’s stunningly filmed by cinematographer Fabio Zamarion, partly evoking the handheld look of neorealism, partly carving out its own, crisply colored and painstakingly composed aesthetic.
Newly released on an extras-less DVD by Columbia, the film is deceptively simple. The first scene establishes the primary point of view as belonging to young Pasquale (Francesco Casisa). First spotted with his friends, checking traps they’ve set on the beach and shooting slingshots at smaller, less aggressive boys, he’s tanned and taut. The sky is conspicuously blue, the surf sparkling, and the boys finely framed in the one-time windows of an abandoned structure. It all makes for an ideal image of childhood—the kids are carefree, nimble, endlessly energetic.
But Pasquale’s experience is framed again, metaphorically, by his increasingly difficult relationship with his feisty and mesmeric mother, Grazia (Valeria Golino). At first, Grazia’s spirit is invigorating and alluring. Soon, however, the cautionary folktale dimensions become visible: she seems the protagonist in an all too familiar account of the tantalizing madwoman, at once seductive and scary. This effect is achieved through Pasquale’s nuanced perspective, which makes her story both diffused and complicated.
The family is nominally headed by Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), a fisherman in tune with the traditions of the Mediterranean island Lampedusa. He goes out in the morning and returns at night, darkened and weary from his hours in the sun. His gorgeous young wife, Grazia, works at the fish packing plant and looks after their three children, Pasquale, his younger brother Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), and Marinella (Veronica D’Agostino), now old enough to be eying a cute traffic officer.
For all the routine of their lives, tensions are escalating. Bored, Grazia seeks mini-adventures with her kids, riding the family motorbike, her arms twisted around Pasquale’s waist, her cheek resting on his shoulder, as if she’s his sweetheart instead of his mama. She takes both sons to the beach, where she alarms and thrills them when she undresses to go swimming, encouraging them to join her. Their respite is cut short when Pietro returns from the sea and spots his wife, floating and topless. As Pietro sputters on his boat, it’s left to Pasquale to restore his mother to “modesty.”
This scene introduces Grazia’s history of grating against local customs and causing her husband embarrassment. As emancipated and exhilarating as she seems to Pasquale, she also embodies confusion and chaos (in one scene, she suffers a kind of fit, frothing and fainting as Pietro endeavors to soothe her, the kids looking on in horror). Predictably, the neighbor women are especially judgmental of this bad behavior, and they suggest that Grazia be sent away to Milano (the unfathomable big city where doctors will put an end to her unruliness). In response, Grazia is by turns fretful, frightening, and fierce.
Her excess is simultaneously distressing and inspirational, personal and broadly emblematic. Other viewers have compared Golino’s performance to a “young Sophia Loren,” but the actor invests Grazia with her own, original verve, less conventionally sexy and more dangerously transgressive, particularly in her affection for her children, and by extension, for an abstracted childhood. When she discovers that Pietro has dragged her favorite dog off to a local holding pen for wild dogs, she musters her nerve and makes a fateful decision to free the animals. As the dogs tear through the streets, excited to be loose, the townsmen shoot at them from rooftops, picking them off one by one, leaving bloody carcasses on sidewalks and in alleys.
This very visceral calamity impels Grazia’s more numinous fate. By its end, Respiro offers hope in the form of irresolution, and a lesson learned by the son at the expense of the father. Perhaps the next generation can be different, and more importantly, allow for difference. At last, Pasquale and his loving, too lovable mother, may be able to breathe out.