Once upon 1993, in a Sicilian town…
That is when, and where, Sicilian Ghost Story begins: a year that is never known if not for the final revelation that this dark fable was inspired by real events, and a city that, like most of the characters peopling it, is without a name.
Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, screenwriters and directors of the film, use the power of fiction to revitalize the tragedy of the abduction of Giuseppe di Matteo. The duo returns with their combination of gritty tales about organized crime and the miraculous four years after Salvo. In their latest, genre-bending work, Giuseppe di Matteo is simply Giuseppe, the horse-loving 13-year-old pursued by his classmate Luna. When he stops coming to school, Luna is concerned; but it is when no reason is given for his absence that she begins to move. Nobody says it; nobody tells her that Matteo was kidnapped to prevent his father, a pentito of the Mafia, from cooperating with the authorities. It is only by following clues she finds in her dreams that, unwilling to just forget, she can get close to him in some fashion.
“Pentito” means “repentant”; it is how Mafia members who collaborate with justice are called; it is how Giuseppe, despite his bitterness, refers to his dad. But the only person outside of organized crime to speak about him, Luna’s classmate who wants to get back at her, calls him “l’infame”: a particularly repulsive sort of villain. This is the omertà, the code of silence that enshrouds and protects the atrocities of the Mafia. It is not only fear, but also a social contract. Luna’s acting out – dying her hair blue, failing her tests, printing fliers asking everyone “Giuseppe is missing – And what are you doing?” – is directed not at the perpetrators so much as at the men and women of her town who turn their heads and pretend like nothing happened, her sometimes chaotic noise protesting their complicit silence; her stomach pains the manifestation of her own disgust.
This is not the sunny Sicily where one would enjoy spending their vacations. The sea is out of reach, kept from the audience just like from Giuseppe. It is there with all its promises of beauty, but ungraspable. This is a wilder Sicily, one of foreboding yet enchanting woods, one where dreams hold clues, but also one where illegal homes are used to hide abducted kids to keep their parents from testifying. The Sicily we see is cold, dark, even disquieting, albeit instilled with a certain lyricism. The love for the wonder that this land could have been and could perhaps still be causes the idyllic tone to occasionally dip into the pathetic, or, more often, to be confusing. It is in fact one of the main flaws of this film that in its first hour, it appears not to know exactly what it wants to be. The atmosphere of several narrative strands fluctuates for no discernible reason, resulting in abrupt and befuddling tonal shifts and uncertain perspectives.
Still in this first half, the dialogues can be clunky and the less than stellar acting fails to support their weight. But in the second half, where the stillness the film was always striving for finally preponderate, there is genuine greatness. Narrative and atmosphere congeal around one swell-defined intent, finding their expression in sublime camerawork enhanced by suggestive lighting. The visual alone manages to carry all the power that the dialogues and the actors cannot, conferring immense magnitude to gestures, compositions, even absolute immobility. Sicilian Ghost Story is rife with astounding visual correspondences that require no words to have an effect, and are all the mightier for it. The spectator who knows to keep their eyes sharpest in the slow and the still will be rewarded with both meaning and beauty.