directed by Emanuele Crialese
(Sony, 2003)

It's hard to look anywhere but the stunning scenery in Respiro -- Emanuele Crialese's third effort as a director, second as a producer -- but the story, in fits and starts like its lead's behavior, gives jolts just when it needs to.

Driven by the whims of Grazia (Valeria Golino, Frida, Rain Man), the storyline, like the small Italian fishing town where Grazia lives, waits for her to decide what to do next. One moment placid, the next explosive, Respiro is the story of Grazia's struggle to live the way she wants to in the midst of people who understand nothing of her behavior.

She is a constant burning of manic energy and, often, depression, a mother who thinks nothing of stripping off her clothes to swim on a deserted beach, who hesitates not a moment before freeing the town's stray dogs, which have been penned up in a crumbling fort to die. The only place she seems truly at peace is in the ocean, floating on the surface as the constant sun beats down.

Her husband, Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), is alternately enthralled, bemused and angered by her swinging moods; her mother-in-law and many of the townspeople want her sent away to Milan for some mental health treatment.

But it's Grazia's relationship with her children, especially her oldest son, Pasquale, that provides some of Respiro's most intimate moments. Often embarassed by his mother's carefree nature, Pasquale (Francesco Casisa) still is the person she turns to for understanding, and he's undoubtedly the only person willing to go out on a limb for this unconventional woman. If anyone's viewpoint of Grazia carries the film, it's Pasquale's.

When Grazia finally uses the last of her neighbors' patience, releasing the stray dogs to run amok through narrow streets of the village, they've had enough. It's decided -- even though it's been pushed all along by Pietro's mother and sisters -- to ship Grazia off to the Milanese doctor.

Her manic nature, which the film never outright addresses, simply wears out everyone around her. And, since everyone in the village is part of everyone else's business, since all of their lives are lived out in the open, each of her manic episodes solidifies the opposition.

Pasquale hides his mother away in one of the island caves, where she listens to the rescue parties calling her name. Pietro, convinced his wife is dead, swims out to sea to stand a statue of the Virgin Mary on the ocean floor.

It all comes to a head when the townspeople gather on the beach for a bonfire to mark a saint's feast day and Pietro spots Grazia floating in the ocean. He wordlessly steps into the ocean to swim to her, followed by everyone on the beach.

It's a highly unlikely embracing of Grazia -- but an entrancing few minutes of moviemaking filmed underwater, at night, with a firelit glow and hypnotic images. They're in Grazia's world now, and it's both strange and beautiful.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 3 July 2004

Buy it from