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Cinema Signal:

Un Paese:
Portrait of an Italian Village

. "Respiro" (I breathe) (aka, "Grazia's Island")

This film takes an uncomfortable look at family values gone awry by mental illness. Sunsplashed Lampedusa, an Italian island near Sicily that depends on fishing for its livelihood, is the setting for this creation of the life of a family and a village. And, while it contains the warmth and humor that is so natural to Italian filmmakers, its basis on a Lampedusan legend gets it into storytelling trouble.

Grazia (Valeria Golino) is an affectionate mother and wife, one who will chide a son's wildness or complain at her husband's restrictions but she'll quickly, forgive and forget. Her world is her family and her island, and she's fulfilled within that sphere. But something is not quite right with Grazia.

At first, her free-spirited actions are endearing and interesting -- to us and to the townsfolk. But she pushes the limits of acceptability when, on a trip with her children to the beach, she suddenly takes her top off and swims in the ocean. When husband Pietro's fishing boat happens to glide by (straining the limits of coincidence), and he sees this too-free-spirited display, he's frantic with rage at the unseemliness of her behavior. This transgression is only prelude to what will follow.

When she's accused of making trouble by a fellow worker in the fish packing plant, she flies off the handle and runs out. But the final touch comes when she releases scores of captive dogs from confinement into the community -- an outrage that is too much for the town to endure.

The village leaders meet and urge Pietro to send his wife off to Milan for therapy. Only after much pressure and his own realization that it might be the only way to help her, he agrees. But Grazia ain't leaving her town and her 13-year old son Pasquale takes her side and provides a hiding place in an obscure cave along the coast as Pietro takes up a desperate search for her with the help of the people of the town.

Now, here we have a problem for writer-director Emanuele Crialese ("Once We Were Strangers"). How do you resolve the story with the dilemma of what will happen to Grazia if she's found versus not being found? How will either development affect her family? How could she not be found? Any way you go, however, leads to another chapter and a story length that Crialese apparently felt couldn't be sustained by the strength of the material. So, he chose to terminate the story abruptly and by resorting to an incomprehensible surrealism that casts no light on Grazia's destiny, leaves us bewildered, grasping for meaning, and ungratified.

The cat-eyed Golino, who can be gorgeously sensual when the part calls for it ("Frida"), plays the mom with great naturalism, lavishing love and adoration upon her children and her husband, affording her Grazia considerable sympathy in view of her bipolar tendencies. A very handsome Vincenzo Amato plays husband Pietro with fine sensitivity under the community required machoism.

An outstanding find in his age group is Francesco Casisa as elder son Pasquale whose burgeoning physicality and maturity, thrown into a protective role as he's forced to deal with oddities of his mother's behavior, is a major contribution to those elements of the film that are outstanding.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Rating: 7
the movie was intriguing. however, I did not see Grazia as mentally ill. I think her behavior may have been the product of boredom. She has a fiery temperment that would inevitably have consequences in a town with that small-minded mentality. In a more stimulating setting, she probably would have thrived.
                                                           Lorraine K
FC: Lorraine: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You might have recognized the pattern of mental illness if you had been exposed to someone exhibiting this kind of behavior. When someone's actions are against their interests and they seem incapable of analyzing and controlling them, you have to look for an explanation beyond simple boredom.

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Valeria Golino
Italian mother and wife with troubles

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