Memories of an Italian cinema classic, Stromboli (1949), fill one's mind while watching Emanuel Crialese's Respiro.
Both films take place in small fishing villages (here, Lampedusa near Sicily), and both observe in loving, documentary detail the daily rituals of a working community.
Also common to both films is the theme of a woman's entrapment in such a traditional and closely-knit culture.
Crialese uses the striking metaphor of caged dogs to underline the plight of Grazia (Valeria Golino), a wife and mother given to depressions, fits and 'walkabouts'.
Respiro is at its best when it sticks to dramatising the actions and reactions of those around Grazia, in particular her husband, Pietro (Vincenzo Amato) and their two sons, Pasquale (Francesco Casisa) and Filippo (Filippo Pucillo). Crialese is careful to avoid a facile dichotomy of female victim and male oppressors.
Once Grazia takes a more radical leave of her senses, a touch of the Betty Blue syndrome does creep in – a fuzzy (and secretly misogynist) romanticisation of woman as free spirit or holy fool, whose passion is dangerously close to psychosis.
The community is left behind as the film alternates between Grazia's sojourn in a cave and Pietro's search party, leading to an odd, ambiguous conclusion.
Respiro has been hailed as heralding a rebirth for Italian cinema. That claim is greatly exaggerated. However, we see so few Italian films in Australian arthouses today that anything a trifle harder than Cinema Paradiso is welcome.
© Adrian Martin June 2003