Sicilian Ghost Story is in Italian with subtitles, but don’t let that put you off - this is a truly marvellous, heart-wrenching watch. It’s based on a true story which I recommend not looking up before you see it for the full impact of the ending.
In short, it tells the story of Giuseppe, a Sicilian boy who was abducted in 1996 by the mafia as leverage over his father, who was co-operating with the police. It’s also about Giuseppe’s girlfriend, Luna, and her quest to get to the bottom of his unexplained disappearance.
One of things that's so remarkable about the film manifests in the opening shots, which bring us from a dark, echoey cave into modern-day (or 1990’s) Sicily. But the gothic, “ghost story”, unreality stays with us in the aesthetic telling of a story grounded in real events, as the film blends fantasy and real tragedy. That intro gives us a long time before we hear the first words, and the film only does part of its “talking” through the spoken word.
The cinematography is fantastic -it's a beautiful film. The shot composition is astonishingly crisp and precise in what it wants to highlight or illustrate, and the colours of the film are absolutely stunning, sumptuous and elevated beyond plausible vivacity, lending to that fantasy feel. Sicilian Ghost Story is fantastic at contrasting beauty with brutality, fitting for Southern Italy with its mafia underbelly, and this contrast has a noticeable ebb and flow between the two extremes, giving the film a fantastic shape.
The film is deeply charming and endearing, and utterly immersive in presenting the perspective of the child characters most of the time. The world is mysterious and often out of focus when we are brought to new locations, creating an atmosphere which can actually make you really nervous for Luna’s safety with out resorting to the unsubtle strategies of Hollywood horror.
The retelling of real events, particularly ones of such gravity and impact on the lives they affected, is a sensitive task and the directors (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza) seem to be keenly focussed on portraying the damaging consequences of violence without giving the audience the catharsis of displaying violence itself, an effort for which they must be applauded.
It’s noticeable that towards the end the pacing stumbles a little in telling the end of the story and drawing numerous threads together, but every moment is worth it, particularly the climax. While early in the film images are allowed to speak for themselves, this effect is magnified in the ending and not wanting to spoil it, the effect is heart-stopping.