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Respiro (2002)

A string of postcard images

Rating: 2/10

Running Time: 90 minutes

UK Certificate: 12A

On Lampedusa, a small, dust-blown island near Sicily, mother of three Grazia (Valeria Golino) feels constrained by local customs and traditions, which frown upon a woman swimming naked in the sea or going out on the fishing boats with the men of the village. Her unconventional ways, and her tendency to lash out unpredictably when upset, leads her husband Pietro (Vincenzo Amato) and his family to arrange for her to be institutionalised in Milan – but before this can happen, Grazia flees to the clifftops, and, thanks to a ruse engineered by her son Pasquale (Francesco Casisa), comes to be revalued by her husband and reintegrated into the community which previously rejected her.

This summary of 'Respiro', for all its brevity, amounts almost to an overstatement of what actually happens in the film; for director Emanuele Crialese has largely replaced conventional narrative events with disjointed episodes illustrating the island life of Grazia's three children, and with symbolic gestures – e.g. recurrent images of animals trapped by humans (birds caught with snares, fish with nets, dogs impounded), serve to reflect the social constraints placed upon Grazia's wild ways – and Grazia's use of her lipstick to paint the faces of some local boys, strongly reproved by one of the fathers, suggest Grazia's desire to break free from the islanders' rigidly delineated gender roles. There are several well-observed sequences, especially the evolving flirtation between a rookie policeman from the mainland and Grazia's daughter Marinella (Veronica D'Agostino, who, as befits a young romance,is a deadringer for Molly Ringwald) – and much of the film is beautiful to look at, with its stark contrast between the unforgivingly arid interiors of Lampedusa and the brilliant aquamarine waters which encircle them. Indeed, 'Respiro' is the sort of film that you could easily pass off to friends as a video of a recent holiday, full of untamed Mediterranean locations and local colour.

Which is the whole problem. For while it was no doubt the picturesque quality and mythic symbolism of 'Respiro' which earned it three prizes at Cannes in 2002, a film needs more than just a string of postcard images to keep the viewer's attention. This film might have been a compelling study of the special bond that exists between mother and son, and its power to bridge all manner of conflicts in a community, but the characters of Grazia and Pasquale are so underdeveloped that their bond remained entirely inscrutable to me – and while the film's final image, of the villagers in the sea together treading water, filmed from below, was typically beautiful and poetic, by this point the film was so starved of narrative interest or engaging characters that all I wanted to see was a giant Spielberg shark gliding coldly towards its smorgasbord dinner. No such luck.

It's Got: 90 minutes of not much going on, in a pretty, and vaguely evocative, way

It Needs: narrative and character interest


Static material better suited to the medium of holiday slides