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Foreign Film Friday: Sicilian Ghost Story review - a beautiful Italian crime-story-with-a-twist you need to see


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Verdict: an absolute must see.

Sicilian Ghost Story is in Italian with subtitles, but don’t let that put you off - this is a truly marvellous, heart-wrenching watch. It’s based on a true story which I recommend not looking up before you see it for the full impact of the ending.

In short, it tells the story of Giuseppe, a Sicilian boy who was abducted in 1996 by the mafia as leverage over his father, who was co-operating with the police. It’s also about Giuseppe’s girlfriend, Luna, and her quest to get to the bottom of his unexplained disappearance.

One of things that's so remarkable about the film manifests in the opening shots, which bring us from a dark, echoey cave into modern-day (or 1990’s) Sicily. But the gothic, “ghost story”, unreality stays with us in the aesthetic telling of a story grounded in real events, as the film blends fantasy and real tragedy. That intro gives us a long time before we hear the first words, and the film only does part of its “talking” through the spoken word.

The cinematography is fantastic -it's a beautiful film. The shot composition is astonishingly crisp and precise in what it wants to highlight or illustrate, and the colours of the film are absolutely stunning, sumptuous and elevated beyond plausible vivacity, lending to that fantasy feel. At least, parts of it are this colourful, and this is intentional as the film also finds ways to be dark and oppressive in this visually sumptuous cinematic language. Sicilian Ghost Story is fantastic at contrasting beauty with brutality, fitting for Southern Italy with its mafia underbelly, and this contrast has a noticeable ebb and flow between the two extremes, giving the film a fantastic shape.

The film is deeply charming and endearing, and utterly immersive in presenting the perspective of the child characters most of the time. The world is mysterious and often out of focus when we are brought to new locations, creating an atmosphere which can actually make you really nervous for Luna’s safety with out resorting to the unsubtle strategies of Hollywood horror.

For the most part, it’s wonderfully quirky in presenting the unorthodox, for example with things occurring in the background, or using an interesting juxtaposition of shots in sequence. It’s cinematic poetry in which the camera has a fantastic eye for what is interesting. It shows us long shots in which images are able to speak for themselves or even disagree with each other, as in the dissonance of Luna and a friend being given the cold shoulder in their search for Giuseppe to a backing of stereotypical upbeat montage music.

The children’s perspective is also reflected in the slow drip-drip of context that we get, with very little explained at the outset and the horror of the situation only gradually swimming into focus. For example, in the kidnapping of Giuseppe, you don’t see the guns in the car straight away: you see the fake police uniforms of the men driving the car, you see the driver take the siren from the top of his car and secretively stow it away, and then you see the guns.

The casting and acting throughout are fantastic. The mafiosi are unsettling and brutal but also fallible. Luna’s parents are astonishingly good and the family dynamic is exceptionally well-drawn and recognisably human. Meanwhile Gaetano Fernandez as Giuseppe and particularly Julia Jedlikowska as Luna put in outstanding performances as the joint core of the story.

The retelling of real events, particularly ones of such gravity and impact on the lives they affected, is a sensitive task and the directors (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza) seem to be keenly focussed on portraying the damaging consequences of violence without giving the audience the catharsis of displaying violence itself, an effort for which they must be applauded. There’s a great use of abstraction in the retelling at points with dream-like sequences which see Giuseppe escape from his prison and Luna reunite with her love. At times the abstract sequences are a little saccharine, particularly when we get to hear what was actually in Luna’s letter to Giuseppe, but by that point the film has thoroughly earned it.

It’s noticeable that towards the end the pacing stumbles a little in telling the end of the story and drawing numerous threads together, but every moment is worth it, particularly the climax. While early in the film images are allowed to speak for themselves, this effect is magnified in the ending and not wanting to spoil it, the effect is heart-stopping.

Sicilian Ghost Story is available in cinemas and on Digital from August 3rd, distributed by Altitude.

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