Sicilian Ghost Story Reviews
Sicilian Ghost Story is cinema as art, in the purest sense of the term. Extraordinary aesthetic beauty and not a small amount of technical virtuosity contain a narrative that is emotionally devastating, but also paradoxically uplifting.
Beginning in 1993, Sicilian Ghost Story tells the story of Luna (an extraordinary debut performance by Julia Jedlikowska, who carries the entire film) and Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez), two thirteen-year-olds living in Palermo who are slowly falling in love. Giuseppe is the son of a Cosa Nostra hitman who has recently turned state's witness in prison. Everything is relatively normal in their lives until Giuseppe disappears. Deeply upset, Luna is incredulous at the community's lack of reaction. With this in mind, she determines to find him herself, quickly realising that the two share psychic connection, upon which she must rely if she is ever to see him again.
The film is adapted from Marco Mancassola's 2011 short-story "Un cavaliere bianco", about the murder of Giuseppe Di Matteo, son of Santino Di Matteo (known as Mezzanasca), a hitman for the Cosa Nostra, who was arrested in 2013, and became an informer. In retaliation, the Mafia kidnapped his eleven-year-old son, Giuseppe. The plan was to use Giuseppe to silence Mezzanasca, torturing him, and sending pictures to his father demanding that he recant his testimony. However, Mezzanasca refused to cooperate. After 779 days of imprisonment, Giuseppe was strangled to death, and his body subsequently dissolved in a vat of acid. As in the film, Mancassola uses the real-life events as the starting-point for an otherworldly, fantastical narrative which follows Luna's increasingly non-corporeal attempts to find Giuseppe.
Sicilian Ghost Story is a fantasy-based love story first, and a fact-based tale of violence and murder second. Indeed, it could just as legitimately called be Sicilian Love Story. Poetic and magical in equal measure, although it spends a great deal of time within Luna's imagination/unconscious, it remains grounded in the Cosa Nostra-dominated Sicilian culture of the early 90s. Because of this duality, although the film tells an undeniably dark story, Pizza and Grassadonia were able to craft a paradoxically uplifting denouement, which doesn't feel even remotely out of place or artificially grafted on. Indeed, the only way they could find into telling the story at all was to introduce an element of the fantastical; speaking at Cannes, they state, "the only way to tell the story was for us to create a collision between a level of reality and a level of fantasy. On the level of reality, a dark fable. On the level of fantasy, a romantic fable."
I became aware I was watching something extraordinary in the opening scene. Inside a cave, the camera travels over dark rocks. A weak light emanates from the mouth of the cave, and reflects off the droplets of water on the rocks. As the camera moves, and the screen fills with a black background permeated by soft white spots, one could be looking at an expansive star field rather than being confined inside a cave, a shot which recalls the scene on the driving range in Michael Mann's The Insider, which has a similarly disorientating effect.
The filmmakers also employ a litany of techniques to link, contrast, and compare various scenes. Animal imagery appears throughout; an owl, butterflies, a stout, a dog, spiders, and, especially, horses. On a more technical level, Pizza and Grassadonia's visual trickery is exceptionally accomplished, and they employ it perfectly, always justified by the content; fisheye lenses, Dutch angles, asymmetrical framing, chiaroscuro lighting, soft focus, forced perspective, etc.
Most of the reasons I loved the film so much will be the exact same reasons that a lot of people hate it - narrative ambiguity, only-ever-hinted-at possibility of something ethereal living in the forest, slightly confusing achronological structure, camera trickery, slow pacing, bleak morality, non-diegetic light sources, naturalistic acting, symbolism and visual metaphors, the use of a real-life murder as the subject for an oneiric romance, the (at times) oppressive music, a tacit disregard for genre, two scenes where the narrative progression simply stops completely and there are two four-or-five-minute sequences that don't advance the plot in any way, but which are achingly beautiful, and central to the film's overriding theme - that love can transcend all.
This is cinema as art. Point of fact, it's nothing less than a masterpiece.
We are in a downpour of maledictions. There will always be cruelty and truth is the far side of the constellation of histories that navigated the abduction of 12 year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, the son of a mafia informant in 1993.