'The Macaluso Sisters' ('Le sorelle Macaluso'): Film Review | Venice 2020

Le Sorelle Macaluso
Venice Film Festival
A breakout film for an award-winning theater writer-director.

Leading Italian playwright Emma Dante brings to the screen her prize-winning play about a tragedy in a family of five sisters living together in Palermo.

An accidental death in the family turns the lives of five orphaned sisters upside down in The Macaluso Sisters (Le sorelle Macaluso), the second of Emma Dante’s theatrical works to be filmed by the author and playwright. The story is set in lower middle-class Sicily, where five young women struggle to fend for themselves in a big apartment overlooking the sea. With its deeply etched characters and fine dramatic performances from an ensemble female cast, it’s the most likely of the four Italian films bowing in Venice competition to appeal to audiences outside the domestic walls, but it should still do most of its business in Italy, where Dante’s fans are legion.

Quite a step up from the director’s first film A Street in Palermo, which dramatized a battle of wills between two women stuck in a traffic jam, The Macaluso Sisters is never completely free from stage conventions. But it is much more open in terms of space and time. The location, nostalgic but oppressive, is Palermo and the spirit is that of Italy’s deep south. The film adaptation penned by Dante, Elena Stancanelli and Giorgio Vasta is divided into three acts set in different time periods, when the protags are respectively young, adult and elderly. Both touching and universally understandable, the theme is how an untimely death destroys the fragile fabric that binds a family together.

The girls, who range in age from maybe 5 to 20, are preparing for a day on the beach when the curtain rises. What happened to their parents is not mentioned, but they have their lives organized and in hand. They make a living renting the doves they raise in the attic to weddings; after the ceremony, the birds find their own way home when they are released into the sky. It’s an uneasy metaphor for the drama that follows.

Pinuccia (Anita Pomario), the oldest sister, puts on lipstick as she gets little Antonella (the sweet-faced, good-tempered Viola Pusateri) dressed. The other three fight and taunt each other in sisterly fashion but finally, in high spirits, they all walk out together through overgrown lots on their way to the Charleston, a gaudy bathing establishment on Mondello beach. To keep from paying the entrance fee, the girls sneak in.

Most closely observed is the sporty Maria (Eleanora De Luca), who aspires to be a dancer. She slips away to meet a girl her own age and, in a deserted arena, they flirt and exchange kisses. Meanwhile Pinuccia swims out to sea, leaving Katia and the emotionally uncentered Lia alone in the water with Antonella. What happens next is revealed in the following act.

Years have passed and great changes have come over the household. Maria (the adult Simona Malato) has not become a dancer; she works as vet’s assistant and the ugliness of her life is visualized by her cutting opening a deer’s stomach with a scalpel. Her face looks ghastly and her body is emaciated. Back home, she dons a child’s ballet tutu and abruptly announces she is ill.

Pinuccia (Donatella Finocchiaro), who is now an attractive young woman with a boyfriend, has invited the married sister Katia (Laura Giordani) over for dinner. But Lia’s mental problems have pushed her innate aggressiveness over the edge, and in a very theatrical screaming match, Pinuccia accuses her of killing Antonella that long-ago day on Mondello beach.

Many years later, we find an aged Lia (Maria Rosaria Alati) living alone in the decrepit apartment, surrounded by more poignant memories of childhood — dolls, puppets, toys and music boxes — than in a Tennessee Williams play. Among them are, of course, souvenirs of the lost Antonella. But the final scene manages to break free of stagy trappings in a cinematic moment of truth that hits home.

From 7 to 70, the ensemble cast is convincing even in the moments of high drama. Gherardo Gossi’s cinematography has a nostalgic glow that turns darker in the middle section. Well-chosen music credits include pieces by Satie, Sicilian composer-director Franco Battiato and Gianna Nannini’s challenging rock song, Meravigliosa creatura.  

Production companies: Rosamont, Minimum Fax Media, Rai Cinema
Cast: Viola Pusateri, Anita Pomario, Eleanora De Luca, Simona Malato, Susanna Piraino, Serena Barone, Maria Rosaria Alati, Donatella Finocchiaro, Ileana Rigano, Alissa Maria Orlando, Laura Giordani, Rosalba Bologna.
Director: Emma Dante
Screenwriters: Emma Dante, Elena Stancanelli, Giorgio Vasta
Producers: Marica Stocchi, Giuseppe Battiston, Daniele Di Gennaro
Director of photography: Gherardo Gossi
Editor: Benni Atria
Production designer: Emita Frigato
Costume designer: Vanessa Sannino
Casting: Maurilio Mangano
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Charades
94 minutes