Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu May 31, 2018 12:39 pm 
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Bad magic

Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Lincoln Center 2018 Open Roads: New Italian Cinema opener clearly has links with their feature of four years earlier, Salvo. Both feature romance, a prisoner killed by mafiosi, supernatural elements, and a Sicilian setting. I admired Salvo (featured in ND/NF 2014) for its suspenseful and thrilling single-take sequence early on, and forgave a less effective second half. Perhaps the sophomore film is more unified and more richly layered, yet for me, certain elements made it off-putting. I am not the best customer for magic realism. It is sometimes wasted on me, which has made me not the best audience for the movies of Guillermo del Toro.

Here, it felt grating to see the way Ghost Story wove a dreamy web of fable and magic around a fundamentally ugly and evil event. The fact is that in the nineties a 12-year-old boy in Sicily was kidnapped by the mafia, held for two years, and then strangled and dissolved in acid. The boy's father had been a mafia assassin, and when he fell into police custody the boy was held to keep his father from turning police informer. (Presumably it didn't work.) This story recalls the Getty kidnapping recently dramatized in the film All the Money in the World, but this time there are more horrific glimpses of the brutal treatment to the boy.

For the film young Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is made a couple years older, old enough to have a romance with an invented girlfriend, a schoolmate called Luna (Julia Jedlikowska). It's something of a Romeo and Juliet story. Giuseppe's family don't welcome Luna after he disappears, not wanting to reveal he is gone. Luna's severe (and implausibly stylized) Swiss mother (Sabine Timoteo) continually objects to the headstrong girl's obsession with the boy. Whether this is because omertà requires closing ranks against an informer or because she doesn't want her daughter to date a gangster's son, we don't know. In fact despite Ghost Story winning a Davide di Donatello for Best Screenplay Adaptation (from a story by Marco Mancassola), the writing is vague on numerous points. The film slips endlessly into open-ended riffs involving dreams or magical nature that could have used more edits. The anamorphic/widescreen lens work of cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (a longtime collaborator with Paolo Sorrentino, recently on "The Young Pope") is certainly striking but it calls attention to itself and to the strangeness of things to a distracting extent. The style here is baroque.

Again the filmmakers seem at their best early on, this time particularly in several cute scenes between the boy and girl, especially one where Giuseppe takes Luna to see his horse, which he rides in classic equestrian gear, including a velvet cap and white-on-white shirt and tie. Rather than the son of a gangster assassin, he seems like a young prince, or at least a well off upper class boy. One wishes the film had explored actual social aspects such a romance might have. But this isn't what Piazza and Grassadonia are looking for. They're more interested in weaving a spell with a bird, a weasel, a ferocious black dog, an owl, streams, and a forest of trees that are gnarly, yet slim and manicured-looking. The actors convey a sense of sweet, playful teenagers, but the film wants to make Giuseppe a prince charming. A fable-like feel and teenage sensuality can be blended successfully, as is shown in Manuel Pradal's 1997 classic Marie Baie des Anges, but here, the fantasy tries to hog the screen - alternating with Luna's plucky efforts to find the boy or push authorities to look. But in the end those meld into sequences of magical nature and Luna's dreams, and Giuseppe's.

After the idyl of the horse, Giuseppe disappears. From then on, the movie mixes dreams of Luna's reunion with him with grimly realistic scenes of his captivity. It is even more painful to witness the boy dirt-covered, in chains, and bloodied in the light of the memorable earlier images of him pristine and smiling, in elegant riding gear. The film is replete with loud, shocking sounds and images. More than a ghost story it's a horror movie. There are scenes of Luna's class at school, which was also Giuseppe's, mostly doing mathematics. Also mixed in are sequences between Luna and her older friend Loredana (Corinne Musallari). The two girlfriends signal each other at night in Morse code with bright lights, and dye their hair the same bright blue, then cut it off. In later scenes they have their hair again. What all this is about is anybody's guess.

The filmmakers are not concerned to specify what's going on, though it would be mistaken to think there is any mystery around the kidnapping, since it's clear enough amid the elaborate filler.

Sicilian Ghost Story, 121 mins., debuted as the opening film of Critics Week at Cannes May 2017, opening theatrically in Italy the same day; 8 international festivals; slated for French release 13 Jun. 2018. Screened for this review as part of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center, 31 May-6 Jun. 2018. It has been acquired by Strand Releasing for a coming US distribution.

Opening Night Film, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.

Thursday, May 31, 1:00pm & 6:00pm (Q&A with Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza at the 6:00pm screening) .


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