Friday 10 August 2018

The innocents: "Sicilian Ghost Story"

Sicilian Ghost Story is a tricky one, not least for how it constantly wriggles away from the expectations set up by its own title. For starters, it's based on a true story (from the not-especially-distant 1990s) which was also a true crime story, and - as the regional specificity of the title betrays - an organised crime story. It opens, however, as a coming-of-age story, introducing us to a pair of babes in the woods. Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) and Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) are skylarking sweethearts in their early teens, tailing after one another in the hours after school in the hope of converting an airy crush into something more graspable. The girl clutches a love letter, hand-painted with stars; the boy - a promising equestrian - delights in teasing and trotting around her, as boys do. So it's a budding love story, too. What prevents us from reaching for the Trades Description Act is that the film is shot like a ghost story, composed of shadows, pauses, fading twilight, (ma)lingering atmosphere. For all the kids' youthful ebullience, we're set waiting for something nasty to happen; when the boy fails to return home, our expectations are well and truly met on at least one front.

So now it's a mystery story, and Luna duly turns Nancy Drew to investigate her sweetheart's disappearance, retracing the pair's steps through the forest, sneaking into the spaces Giuseppe once occupied, and generally refusing to let go of his memory. One wrinkle is that you and I already know where he's got to - it's revealed to us not long after Luna notices his absence - which means it's not such a mystery after all. What filmmakers Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza seem to be getting at with this shifting, searching, ever-restless approach, is the undeniably spooky culture of repression and silence that runs through this particular land, which could well lead a young boy to dematerialise - become ghostlike - without anybody saying, or daring to say, a word. One way to denounce silence is with a statement; given that there is barely one conventional set-up in Sicilian Ghost Story's entire two hours, Grassadonia and Piazza's statement has been set out in images that scream at the top of their lungs for attention. Sensitive viewers may need ear plugs for their eyes.

It opens with an extended sequence - the most abstract movie prologue since 2013's Under the Skin - that shows metallic ores forming in the darkened depths of a cave, and even when the directors come indoors, they place their camera in the most counterintuitive positions, high up in the backs and sides of frames, and reach for the widest lenses available. A lot of effort has been made to visualise this narrative in an unexpected fashion; and we often see that effort more than we can a story being served. One shot - of a spectral, black-clad figure viewed from across a river - is a direct lift from English ghost story The Innocents (which might have provided an alternative title); the dreamier stuff - the shadows and sound design, the ne'er-do-wells pulling odd shapes in the background of shots - owes a clear debt to Lynch; a late montage, connecting key characters via song, is pure Magnolia. Increasingly, you wonder whether Grassadonia and Piazza are less interested in making a political or humanist statement as they are in signalling they've been watching the right kinds of movies, and can therefore be trusted to turn the grisliest of tragedies into art.

To a lesser degree, the sheer capital-C Cinema of Sicilian Ghost Story hooks you as it did there, and its stylisation is capable of nice surprises to sit alongside the nasty ones. One brash, spirited sequence combines hair dye, missing-person fliers and the melodic fuck-you of Sinead O'Connor's "Mandinka"; though other songs tend towards emo-kid balladry, Anton Spielman's original score is properly, gorgeously mournful, apparently created alongside those ores in the centre of the earth. It does, however, feel incredibly self-conscious, not least on the level of performance: here be people who act as if directed to act in a movie - as if they're carrying out a plot. (Keep close eye on Luna's mother (Sabine Timoteo), a pale-faced wraith emerging slick from the sauna to count out her money at the kitchen table.) At every turn, Grassadonia and Piazza are actively pursuing effects and textures most filmmakers would shy away from, which accounts for the film's strangeness: there's nothing else like this around right now. Yet I walked away wondering whether I hadn't just encountered two ultra-confident shotmakers unwilling to think through the implications of their own images, a reaction crystallised by two key sequences. The first involves a butterfly being released to the heavens (as one might a soul), the second body parts being released into a lake. Both sequences are virtuosic; thing is, one is utterly sentimental and hackneyed, the other more than a little distasteful. Come dire swings-and-roundabouts in Italiano?

Sicilian Ghost Story is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon and the BFI.

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