This film opened the Cannes Film Festival Critics Week in 2017. It also received scripting support from the Sundance Festival. It has finally found its way into UK distribution via Altitude and I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it. The festival links suggest an art film, but this is also a film that draws on popular film genres such as romance, horror and fantasy. Inevitably, it’s the kind of film that has received rave reviews and also some very negative ones – but here’s why it is definitely worth seeing.
The starting point for writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza was a terrible event in 1993 which had an impact on most Sicilians. It involved the Mafia and led to much soul-searching across the population. But instead of attempting to tell the story in a realist, procedural manner, the filmmakers (from Palermo) decided to create a form of fantasy/ghost story because that seemed to be a more appropriate way of representing the impact of the events.
The narrative begins as children leave the elementary school in a village in the hills of Central Sicily. A rather beautiful young boy wanders into the woods and is followed by a girl from his class. She hides behind a tree watching him playing with a large colourful butterfly which rests on his hand. Around the girl’s feet a creature is snuffling, a mustelid of some kind (mink, pine marten?). Whatever it is, this is an animal usually very wary of humans. We seem to be in a fantasy situation. A little later the girl is frightened by an angry black dog. Hansel and Gretel in the woods? We will eventually discover that these thirteen year-olds are Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) and Luna (Julia Jedlikowska). Their day ends when Giuseppe, after showing his show-jumping skills on his horse at a remote stables, suddenly disappears. As Luna sits on a rock gazing into the distance, waiting for Giuseppe to emerge from the stables, we see behind her and slightly out of focus what appears to be a police car taking the boy away. When Luna goes to his house, she can’t find any reason why Giuseppe has disappeared.
I won’t spoil the narrative development. I’ll only note that while the rest of the village, including Luna’s parents and the village school, remain silent about the disappearance, Luna and her friend Loredana are determined to find him. Luna is a highly intelligent girl, a talented artist and someone who has the ability to investigate the disappearance in her dreams/nightmares as much as in her waking hours. In the still above she creates what might be an image from her dreams. The drawing reminded me of a recent Spanish-British film, A Monster Calls (Spain-UK-US 2016), though in Luna’s case she wants to rescue Giuseppe from his captors and not summon them. The director of A Monster Calls is J. A. Bayona, whose career took off with promotion by Guillermo del Toro and it is del Toro who is arguably the key reference here with the young girl, the fairy underworld and the all too human horrors of Spanish fascism in Pan’s Labyrinth (Spain-Mexico 2006). There are a number of generic ‘fairy tale’ touches in Sicilian Ghost Story with a pet owl, a falcon and Luna’s rather grim mother (the Swiss actor Sabine Timoteo). One reviewer has described the overall look of the film as ‘gothic and oneiric’ [dreamlike], which feels like a good call. Luna’s red coat (and red jumper) have also been seen as a nod to Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now set in Venice – but ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ seems a better bet.
Luna’s searches, whether ‘real’ or dreamlike are accompanied by winds and especially by underwater scenes in a nearby lake. I thought the cinematography by Luca Bigazzi was excellent – and so it should be since he has been responsible for the look of many well-known Italian films by Paulo Sorrentino and other celebrated directors. Music and sound design is important too with a variety of sound effects enhancing the dreamlike qualities of Luna’s search. I’ve noted that there have been criticisms of the film. Some have complained that the dividing line between reality and fantasy is never clear, but that seems an odd argument since it is presumably the point of the narrative that the experience of the disappearance and its aftermath is difficult to understand and represent as a real event. The real events took place in 1993-5 but the film doesn’t mark this too carefully and it probably makes mistakes in presenting the period settings as eagle-eyed audiences have noted. I suspect the film’s ending will also cause problems for some audiences, but not for me. Overall I found the film to be an imaginative attempt to deal with a major social issue in ways which allowed me to think differently about how communities and individuals within them might respond to terrible events.
This is a tough film which disturbs but which has at its centre an extraordinary performance from Julia Jedlikowska in her first role. The narrative is fuelled by the determination of a single character to keep searching despite the collective hostility of an entire community, most of whose members are too frightened to take action themselves. Luna’s friend Loredana is a reliable friend but without Luna’s devotion to Giuseppe, she will eventually find that time will heal. But I’m wondering what will happen to Luna.
There is an interesting review of the film here.