In picturesque rural Northern Sicily, a teenage boy and son of a local Mafia boss-turned-stool pigeon mysteriously disappears, only for his determined young girlfriend to defy the indifference of the village and the disapproval of her family to unravel the mystery and find him—as her dreams and prophetic visions lead her to the forest which holds the secrets of his abduction in this ‘star-crossed lovers’ treatment of morbid true story.
It takes a bold director to turn real story of callous Mafia child abduction into a Shakespearean tale of forbidden but unconditional young love, luckily for us ‘Sicilian Ghost Story’ has two such filmmakers. For their second feature film, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza adapt a story from Marco Mancassola’s book ‘Non Saremo Confusi Per Sempre’ and weave together a stark but earnest romance in the backdrop of tragedy, incorporating familiar mythology and iconography from centuries of European folklore and fairy-tale—and with plenty to say about the lingering legacy of ‘omertà’ and ‘la cosa nostra’ in modern Italy.
Julia Jedlikowska stars as 13-year-old Sicilian schoolgirl ‘Luna’, a young teen on the cusp of womanhood, infatuated with her classmate and boyfriend ‘Giuseppe’ (Gaetano Fernandez) while confounded by his disappearance and the town’s unwillingness to acknowledge it . . . let alone do something about it. Leave it to Luna to defy her stern mother’s (Sabine Timoteo) objections and the disapproval of the locals, as her prescient imagination creates a hazy dreamscape which leads to her true love—while the brutal reality of Giuseppe’s capture plays out in the deep foreboding woods.
As the title might suggest, ‘Sicilian Ghost Story’ is to some extent a message from the beyond, using subtly supernatural conceits to re-frame a sombre true story—the 1993 kidnapping of Giuseppe Di Matteo—into something more pure by adding deep layers of human connection, but never losing the dark and sobering nature of the story.
At its heart though this is a heartfelt romance and a story of puppy love of Montague & Capulet proportions, with echoes of classic fairy-tale and plenty recognisable references, including the ever present foreboding forest and a familiar piece of red hooded garb. By sheer virtue of the main protagonists, this is also a coming-of-age story, dealing with friendship and sexual awakening but without truly sexualising the young characters—and of course touching upon the required themes of teenage rebellion, parental disconnect and the ‘outsider syndrome’.
Stylistically ‘Sicilian Ghost Story’ is a well-crafted and beautifully shot piece of dark rural drama, with acclaimed Italian cinematographer and regular Paolo Sorrentino collaborator Luca Bigazzi(The Great Beauty, Youth) vividly capturing the beauty and surprising lushness of rural Northern Sicily, as well the simultaneously moody and ethereal dreamscapes which represent the other-worldly aspects of the film. All of which combine with an evocative score from debutant film composer Anton Spielman to give the film a dark dreamlike quality, which further separates it from most tragic romances or family dramas.
The cinematic circle is completed here by the naturalistic performances all around, not only translating all the dramatic qualities of the narrative but also a fair share of deadpan humour. Special praise goes to Sabine Timoteo as Luna’s stern but well-meaning and long-suffering mother, and of course the two young leads who manage to convey a pure and genuine emotional connection which drives the film—but particularly young newcomer Julia Jedlikowska as Luna herself, bringing a stoicism and determination to the role which belies her age and lack of acting experience.
As a considered, slow-build human drama, pacing may be an issue here for some, as the film does drag slightly in the second act, and some may question the wisdom or indeed the taste of the filmmakers in taking a sombre and fairly recent true story and using it to craft a heartfelt realist fairy-tale romance. But Grassadonia and Piazza manage to strike a respectful balance between gritty realism and restrained imagination, and they deserve praise for prying some beauty and innocence out of tragedy and despair—all while subtly reflecting the callous and ominous spectre of organised crime which still lingers over Sicilian society . . . and indeed Italy as a whole.
The Bottom Line…
A young forbidden love romance with classical foundations and a reflective realist fairy-tale rescued from the ashes of a morbid true crime story, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza strike a fine narrative balance while crafting a touching slow-build human drama with subtle metaphysical qualities and folkloric tendencies. ‘Sicilian Ghost Story’ may not be your average romance, coming-of-age story or crime drama, but it manages to stylishly combine those elements with plenty of heart and solid performances . . . and to moving effect.
‘Sicilian Ghost Story’ is out now in Italy, with no UK date yet.