Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 05/29/03 07:43:57

"A mixture of great Italian cinema and fluffy silliness."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2003 SEATTLE FILM FESTIVAL: Why is it that the girls with the greatest zest for life, the most unique personality and the most untamed spirit are always the ones who end up on a leash? This question always bothered me when I was a teenager as I watched great girl after great girl end up with some muscled-up buffoon or ‘too rich to know how poor he is’ asshole, only to end up with their faces pressed against the glass as they wondered what might have been. Respiro is a similar tale, only this one is set in Sicily – a place where tradition and morals hold far greater weight than most other places – and thus not exactly the greatest place for a wife to go skinnydipping.

Grazia (Valeria Golino) is the housewife of a Sicilian fisherman. Her two sons spend their days tormenting kids who aren’t in their gang, her daughter spends her day flirting with the new police constable, and Grazia is supposed to spend her day scraping fish at the processing plant. But Grazia is not really into the whole 9 to 5 ethos, so she falls for any diversion going – be it sailing with Frenchmen, wrestling with the boys, listening to her radio or crashing in on her husband as he drinks beer with his fishermen friends.

Of course, the old gossips shake their head at Grazia, who is admittedly loopy but not in a bad way, and plans are soon afoot to send her for medical help in Milan. Grazia takes this news as you’d expect, she lashes out and decides on a bold course of action.

Respiro is a beautiful film full of non-beautiful imagery. Depicting Sicilian life as boring, unclean, and more obsessed with conformity than living life to its fullest, the film still manages to demonstrate its love for the place. At its best Respiro reminds you of some of the great Italian films; Cinema Paradiso, Life is Beautiful, The Bicycle Thief; with its characters and humor and love for the subject matter. But the film also tends to be sometimes uneven, occasionally slow, and it finishes on a very flat immediate note. Certainly the performance of Valeria Golino (Hotshots, Rain Man) is fantastic, and if the film is released late enough in the year she’d surely be in the running for an award or two (what a shame that a film NEEDS to be released late to be remembered for awards), but to say the film isn’t without flaw would be to forgive a little too much.

The explanation of Grazia’s weird ways (she has a medical issue) seems to seek to explain her, while her mystery is far greater when no explanation is given. For that matter, none is really needed – she’s a free spirit, can’t we leave it at that?

Though maybe I’m sounding overly harsh about a film that really is a quality production in almost every respect. The underwater sequences are beautifully filmed (I mean REALLY beautifully filmed) and the cast (Vincenzo Amato, Francesco Casisa) never disappoints. There is plenty of humor, there is much to look at, and the feel of the piece is very much 1950’s Italy. But there just seems like there should be more going on in these people’s lives that we actually see. While the film feels long, what we experience in it is not in any way an overload. It’s a shame in fact that characters this rich aren’t explored a little fuller while we’re shown over and over how weird Grazia is.

In Cinema Paradiso, what mattered wasn’t so much the main character’s troubles in life, but how those troubles affected those around him and how a community grew up together. Respiro treads similar ground, but focuses far too much on the lead character without really paying heed to how she affects anyone else until the final ten minutes or so.

And that’s what stops it from being a masterpiece.

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