Cannes 2017 review: Sicilian Ghost Story (Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza)

From a deceptively cute title, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza in their sophomore film Sicilian Ghost Story manage to weave an intricate and progressively darkening story that is grounded in the harsh reality of the titular island and the real-life incident in which the story found its origins, but introduces just enough supernatural elements to prevent the film from drowning in misery. Fitting, since its protagonists are adolescent, and at an age where sometimes you wish so hard that your dreams become reality, the lines begin to blur. For a storyteller, this is a nice trick to keep the audience on its toes, and Grassadonia and Piazza make sure to employ it, but their tight direction never feels overbearing and on-the-nose, as they slowly unfold a grim tale that started out so innocently.

Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) is smitten with Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez, like Jedlikowska a newcomer), a classmate that she secretly follows on her way from school. He is certainly aware of her attention, and their chemistry is unmistakable: this is puppy love developing. Trouble brews when Luna’s mother warns her not to mingle with Giuseppe because of his father. But just as we think this is a Romeo-and-Juliet class war, accentuated by Giuseppe clearly being from a more affluent background, it becomes apparent where this affluence comes from: Giuseppe’s dad is a mafioso. This is Sicily after all, a place where the tentacles of the mafia hold so much of life in their stranglehold. And this stranglehold soon includes Giuseppe, who is kidnapped because his dad is cooperating with the police. Luna is beside herself, and tries everything to find Giuseppe, but the question is if it will all be in time.

Grassadonia and Piazza incorporate several styles along the way, from teen romance  to fairytale-like fantasy (complete with a reversed damsel-in-distress angle), as well as more straightforward thriller elements and the approach of a classic ghost story. But it is not this mostly successful blend of styles that makes their effort such a winning one, but more their visual flair and good eye for mise-en-scène and framing underlining the emotional state of both central characters. The director duo finds interesting diagonals in their wide-lensed frames, isolating Luna and Giuseppe and their feeling of being lost and alone in a world that is against them. The cinematography lends the film that ghost story mystery that the title alludes to: there is a theme of the mafia poisoning the island running through the film, both literally and more metaphorical, and nature fighting back against it, an animism that is visualized as a haunting power that follows Luna.

Truth be told, Sicilian Ghost Story is not without its problems: the film could have been trimmed a little, and the character of Luna’s mother is rather one-dimensional for someone with the interesting angle of an outsider background (being Swiss). These are minor details, though, in a film that showcases that Salvo was not a fluke. Grassadonia and Piazza deal with similar themes here, and they are obviously on familiar terrain, but the strength of their direction rises above this. Good direction is the art of manipulation without making it too obvious, and their ability to forgo the screenplay and trust in visuals to draw the viewer’s eye exactly where they want it, letting the audience connect the dots on visual cues, is a rare gift.