Sicilian Ghost Story (2017)

Sicilian Ghost Story first published by RealCrime Magazine

12-year-old Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) follows Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) into the woods after school. Here, as a butterfly rests on Giuseppe’s hand and a weasel brushes past Luna’s foot, the children are close to nature in their Eden of innocence – even as a POV shot suggests a third party spying on and threatening their idyll. Luna intends to give Giuseppe a painstakingly crafted love letter, but loses her nerve and pretends it is for ‘another’ Giuseppe. Giuseppe distracts a dog barking aggressively at Luna by throwing it a piece of bread, like a sop to Cerberus. As they flee, Luna’s cheek is cut – her first blood.

This pubescent couple occupy a liminal space, their environment still resembling, in their eyes, a numinous, transformative landscape from a fairytale or the Roman myths of old, even as they fill it with the beginnings of their own emerging sexuality. But before their love can bloom, Giuseppe just disappears. Nobody wants to talk about the boy’s absence, and as time passes – measured in Luna’s changing hairstyle and the onset of her period – everyone forgets. Everyone but Luna.

Written and directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza (the pair behind the 2013 crime drama Salvo), Sicilian Ghost Story is precisely the sort of fluid merger of genres that its titles suggests: a gritty story set in Cosa Nostra country on the one hand, a tale of the supernatural on the other. It is rooted in the horrific real-life mafia abduction of Giuseppe Di Matteo in the Nineties, but Grassadonia and Piazza have chosen to shift their film’s focus to the other Giuseppe – the one lodged in Luna’s mind and heart – and to let her imagination guide the story to magical realist realms. This is recent history retold as fantasy, and real geographies remapped as places of fable, shimmering with fear and wonder (and beautifully shot by DP Luca Bigazzi). 

Sicilian Ghost Story joins the ranks of Victor Erice’s Spirt of the Beehive (1973), Guillermo del Toro’s diptych The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017) in filtering horrific adult events through the escapist perspective of a child. It is a coming-of-age romance – with watery portals, mystic owls and dreamy doubles to match its desperate stakes – in which two star-cross’d lovers continue, irrationally, to meet across a great void, much as Luna uses a torch at night to signal messages to her best friend Loredana (Corinne Musallari) on the other side of town. Yet Luna, confused and suicidal, gets closer to Giuseppe only as she also approaches death itself – and the film’s mythic frame cannot keep at bay the immense sadness of Giuseppe’s fate.  

© Anton Bitel