Based on the real-life abduction of Giuseppe di Matteo, Sicilian Ghost Story combines teen romance, realist crime drama and gothic fable. Writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s second feature is an impeccably shot, often gripping picture that falls just short of its psychological aspirations.
As 13-year old Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) walks home from school through the woods, Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) follows closely behind, grasping a love letter to him. But while the girl tracks Giuseppe, an unseen, malevolent force stalks the both of them, unsettling their innocently blossoming romance. Individually, Fernandez and Jedlikowska are charming, but together they have an easy chemistry that sells their sweetly embarrassing dalliance.
Their burgeoning relationship is cut short, however, when Giuseppe fails to turn up for school the next day. After 18 of absence, Luna demands answers to his whereabouts yet her teachers and parents blithely dismiss her fears. Her mother (Sabine Timoteo) seems more relieved that she isn’t hanging around the boy, warning Luna ‘not to make the same mistake I did’. Essentially playing the part of the fairytale wicked stepmother, Luna’s mother is all-controlling, shot perpetually in half shadow and from intimidating low angles.
When she’s not dressed as a Victorian governess, the Mother (credited only as Madre di Luna) spends her days sweating in the family’s underground sauna. When we first see her there, confronted by Luna, she’s half-naked, barely draped in a towel. It’s an unexpected moment both of eroticism and vulnerability, representing not only a crack in her stern armour, but also the carnal counterpoint to the cerebral persona she adopts in the upper levels of the house. That juxtaposition between carnal, embodied sensation and ethereal, supra-bodily experience is deeply rooted in the Gothic, and runs throughout Sicilian Ghost Story.
Throughout the film, animals are explicitly associated with characters, a motif that eventually gives way to disembodied supernatural experiences. There’s an ambivalence to the film’s relationship with the supernatural – the ‘Ghost’ in this story is very much the metaphorical kind – which doesn’t always work with its more mundane, realist elements. As a result, potentially rich themes are more often hinted at than fully explored.
A charcoal mural on Luna’s bedroom wall hints at her deteriorating mental state, yet there’s little payoff aside from her parents seeing it and looking a bit upset. While Luna and Giuseppe’s final encounter is left appropriately ambiguous, a beach-set coda sadly opts for a rather mollifying emotional resolution that disregards the darkness that precedes it. While Sicilian Ghost Story doesn’t entirely fulfil its promise as a richly themed gothic romance, the visual craft on display throughout is more than enough to recommend.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell