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(2003) *** 1/2 Pg-13
90 min. distributer. Director: Emanuele Crialese. Cast: Valeria Golino, Vincenzo Amato, Francesco Casisa, Veronica d'Agostino, Elio Germano.

Emanuele Crialese has a gift for making images speak louder than words. In his achingly beautiful film Respiro, Crialese paints pregnant pictures. Early in the film, he shows us a mother and her children on a bike--the mother pensive, one son blissful, another blithe--a snapshot in time capturing the curious bond of mother and children moving against the wind with exhilharation and subcutaneous fear. The film ends with an even more remarkable image (which I will not reveal) with the blindsiding power too seldom wielded in modern, "effects"-driven cinema.

These images hold more than enough ambition; Crialese is wise enough not to break the spell with intellectualization. In his director's statement, he professes to want "Reality alternating with a dimension of fantasy," and Respiro is at least as much a finely detailed coming-of-age film as a retelling of local legend. The blend is wholly involving from the start, and those who resist the film's tidal movement will have missed the boat.

Set on Italy's Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Sicily, Respiro tells of Grazia (Valeria Golino), a mother whose mood swings may indicate a borderline personality. On the other hand, Grazia may simply be the sort of individual who drives provincial conformists up the wall. Certainly, this character is archetypal, but the story's half-fabulist tone and Golino's beguiling performance allow considerable latitude to a potentially tiresome device. With nothing like an overt nod, Respiro suggests early Fellini, with Golino grounding the airy Giulietta Masina role and fabulist visions above and below the horizon line. Intriguingly, Crialese repeatedly cultivates opportunities to judge his characters, then refuses, leaving the audience to sort out its feelings.

Though Grazia is pivotal, the film is told through the eyes of her son Pasquale (Francesco Casisa). The film begins with the recurrent image of children's brawling, a metaphor for their directionless adolescent frustrations. Only after this scene has fully unfolded can we pick out Pasquale as the protagonist. In this ingenious way, Crialese lets the whole film unfold, scene by scene, filling in the unapparent details of a family's domestic and work and love lives with the regulated passage of time.

Respiro, then, is unexpected--enchanting as well as scary--and delightful in its unschooled characterization. With the exception of Golino, the cast is wholly amateur, though one could never tell from the performances by Vincenzo Amato (as Grazia's man Pietro), Filippo Pucillo (as Pasquale's pricelessly insolent brother Filippo), and Casisa, whose light and dark impulsiveness encapsulates the cusp of manhood. In Casisa's hands, the Oedipal tinge to Pasquale's protective relationship to his mother seems as natural as breath.

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