The heartbreaking true story of a teenager’s disappearance at the hands of the Mafia is given a chilling fairytale re-imagining in the second film by co-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza.
Drawing from both real-life events and a short story by Marco Mancassola, Sicilian Ghost Story recounts the tale of Giuseppe De Matteo (Gaetano Fernandez), the 13-year-old son of a Mafioso-turned-informant, who was kidnapped and held by the Sicilian Mafia for two years in order to silence his father. Spurning the mantle of genre convention, the film layers a dream-like fairytale narrative over the true events, introducing the fictional Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), a classmate and crush of Giuseppe who is determined to find him and continue their budding romance.
Following the couple into the forest on their way home from school, the film reveals glimpses into their clumsy courtship. Luna gives Giuseppe a love-letter while he gently mocks her. They ride together on a moped through the streets of the town. They share their first kiss. However, this is not the saccharine frolic through the woods that it seems to be, or could have been with a different approach. Early scenes are underpinned with either an eerie muffled silence or the swirling winds of the Sicilian countryside and the visual direction and cinematography, courtesy of Luca Bigazzi, skilfully create a sense of discomfort around the children’s movements, as if they are disturbing something that should be left alone. The kidnapping is almost incidental, with Luna affected more by Giuseppe’s absence than the nature of the disappearance.
In a way that draws easy comparison with Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Sicilian Ghost Story presents the callous cruelty of the Mafia and the impenetrable shroud of silence and fear amongst the Sicilian people alongside fantasy tropes such as magical lakes, enchanted forests and the power of love. However, rather than placing mythical beasts and supernatural horrors in Luna’s path, Grassadonia and Piazza imbue mundane scenarios and characters with a creeping sense of dread and unease, aided by the low angles and smooth stalking movements of Bigazzi’s camerawork. Strict parents, unsympathetic classmates and skeptical policemen are the obstacles in Luna’s way whereas the mysterious visions (or fabrications?) that she experiences are her motivation, providing an effective metaphor for a child retreating into fantasy to cope with a traumatic experience. It may take more than one viewing to decide on which parts of the film represent ‘fact’ and which ‘fiction’ as the directors take an ambivalent approach, removing the lines between the two things, as opposed to blurring them.
The name of the film may be slightly misleading – anyone expecting a horror film will likely leave bewildered – but Sicilian Ghost Story has the power to chill. Grassadonia and Piazza have a flair for striking imagery, the silhouette of Giuseppe’s apparition haloed by infernal orange light particularly lingers, and the final twenty minutes of the film certainly brings forth goosebumps. Symbolism abounds for those who want it; for example the presence of the owl throughout the film takes on a more baleful significance once you find out that the Italian word for owl – ‘gufo’ – also means a jinx or bad omen.
Having won the favour of Cannes with their first film ‘Salvo’, Grassadonia and Piazza have followed it up with a masterfully crafted, icy slice of bleak fantasy in Sicilian Ghost Story. The true story origins keep the film rooted in a cruel reality, with the technical skill of all involved instilling the film with fantasy without ever veering into the fantastical. The glacial pacing of the film does cause it to drag in parts and the ‘slow-chill’ understated approach could turn people off from the start, but Sicilian Ghost Story is an unforgiving modern fable that leaves an impact, regardless of your interpretation.
Sicilian Ghost Story is out now.
Words by Fraser Kay @fraserkay.
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