‘Sicilian Ghost Story’: Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Julia Jedikowska in 'Sicilian Ghost Story.'
A love story stronger than death.

The shocking abduction and murder of a mafia informer’s son is revisited in a fantasy key in this Cannes Critics' Week entry.

Buoyed by the critical success of Salvo, their breakout debut about a mafia hitman that won the 2013 Grand Prix in Cannes’ Critics Week, co-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza are back with the more resonant and multi-layered Sicilian Ghost Story. As in the previous film, elements of the supernatural (which may also be read as pure imagination) appear like soothing balm on the warped relationships of a typical family, school and community. Given the film’s morbidly fascinating subject based on a true crime story, it stands a very good chance of snagging audiences outside festivals, while its concessions to teen sentimentality and fantasy are bound to appeal to younger audiences.  

The real-life horror story of Giuseppe Di Matteo is well-known in Italy. He was 12 when he was kidnapped by the mafia in 1993 to keep his father from turning informer to state prosecutors; after two years of being held prisoner, he was strangled and his body dissolved in acid. Giovanni Brusca, who ordered his abduction, eventually got a life sentence for this crime, along with two other mafia bosses.

If Grassadonia and Piazza had simply retold the story, it would have been gripping enough, but they deepen the intensity and widen the meaning by letting the tale unfold in a strange filmic space between cruel reality and ghostly fantasy.

They also add the fictional main character Luna, who is vividly portrayed by young Julia Jedikowska in her screen debut. She’s a smitten classmate of the tall, angelic-faced Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) and she follows him into an enchanted woods in the first scene. Their shy, never-been-kissed teasing ends with him snatching a love letter from her hands. He also rescues her from a ferocious black dog with a clever ruse, establishing his role as a white knight in her life.

Her parents — a hen-pecked diabetic dad (Vincenzo Amato) and an infuriatingly manipulative mother (Sabine Timoteo) — know that the handsome, rich, sporty Giuseppe is too good to be true. His father was once a close associate of the mafia chief and is currently in police custody, where he is spilling the beans. It's never clear whether Luna’s folks are worried about their daughter hanging out with a child of organized crime or (most probably) if they are part of the vast world of tight-lipped Sicilians who prudently choose to turn a blind eye to the criminals in their midst.

In any case, Luna’s clashes with her stern mother, who dresses in 19th century fashion and has the prim, stony character to match, escalate when she is seen riding around town with Giuseppe on his scooter. One day he takes her to a solitary place where he keeps his horse and she watches him ride around the ring jumping over the bar. Then, while she is looking the other way, he is taken away in a police car and never seen again.

The “police” are actually human vultures who take him to an unfinished building where they shackle him to the bed in some familiar-looking scenes. When his jailors jeeringly offer him pornography to pass the time, he pulls out and rereads Luna’s love letter, which he has somehow managed to hide. Later, nearing the end, his ghostly white-knight spirit appears beside him like a reassuring doppelganger that offers the viewer a ray of hope in the very grim final scenes.

The main focus, however, is on Luna, whose love and determination reveal hidden depths of character. She alone refuses to bow her head to his inevitable end, and her rebellion against her parents, school and the inert police assumes mythic proportions. Her refusal to close her eyes to the mafia horror makes her a true heroine. Jedikowska, who is of Polish descent but grew up in Palermo, hardly looks Sicilian, but she has a grave presence onscreen that plumbs the depths.

Despite some dead time and teenage moments, the film is lifted up by its belief in the imagination. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi masterfully conjures up the duality of nature as both a hostile environment of weeds, wires and stones and a magical forest filled with ferrets, owls and butterflies. A mysterious lake becomes the doorway to a hidden world where Luna envisions Giuseppe in captivity — but also a metaphysical space where his bones return to the earth.

Superb technical work transforms cruel reality into a fable with many ramifications. One can hear the echoes of the films of Matteo Garrone here, not just the chilling crimes and stony hearts of Gomorrah, but the cruel southern fables he retold in Tale of Tales. A recurring image is the ruins of a magnificent Greek temple that towers above the sea, like the longing for a return of the gods who once were said to populate the island.

Production companies: Indigo Film, Cristaldi Pics in association with RAI Cinema, Ventura Film, Mact Productions, JPG Film, RSI.
Cast: Julia Jedikowska, Gaetano Fernandez, Sabine Timoteo, Vincenzo Amato, Corinne Musallari, Andrea Flazone, Federico Finocchiaro, Lorenzo Curcio, Filippo Luna, Nino Prester
Directors: Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza
Screenwriters: Fabio Grassadonia, Antonio Piazza, based on a story by Marco Mancassola
Producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori, Massimo Cristaldi
Executive producer: Francesco Tato
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Marco Dentici
Costume designer: Antonella Cannarozzi
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Music: Soap&Skin, Anton Spielmann
World sales: The Match Factory
Venue: Cannes Critics Week
122 minutes