Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Sicilian Ghost Story begins dialogue-free as Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) follows the object of her adolescent affection into the woods which surround school. Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is a gentle soul who adores video games, football and horses – all the things that cement their burgeoning love. On this particular day, Luna’s ‘White Knight’ saves her from a rabid Rottweiler albeit in a crisp white shirt and grey trousers – as opposed to armour – but it’s a nice nod to Marco Mancassola’s short story in We Won’t Be Confused Forever, from which the film is derived.
The young couple’s time together displeases Luna’s strict and oppressive mother (Sabine Timoteo) who is framed as the Wicked Stepmother with her mild sauna compulsion, and made all the more severe by her 19th century-looking clothing. Mother and daughter relations are fractious at best therefore making it easier for Luna to rebel against later on. Her mother’s opinion means little to her, as she continues to skip school and spend her afternoons with Giuseppe. While this film has all the markings of a love story this aspect of the narrative never feels contrived nor does it overwhelm, it merely drives Luna in her quest to find Giuseppe when he suddenly disappears.
At its core, the film sets to retell the true story surrounding the kidnapping of Giuseppe Di Matteo in 1993 (the basis for Mancassola’s short story) yet does so in a completely unique way. It is steeped in mythology and fairy tale imagery – specifically reminiscent of Basile and the Brothers Grimm – as the symbolic manifests in Luna’s connection to Giuseppe, his abduction failing to ignite much concern among the adults around her. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s fluid camera movement and expertise with low-angle shots and a distorted lens conveys the strange atmosphere and enforces the supernatural aspect of the young protagonists’ bond as they learn the cruelty of the world.
It is easy to compare Sicilian Ghost Story to Pan’s Labyrinth not least in the centring of a female protagonist fighting against a patriarchal force (here, the Mafia) and the juxtaposition of a childlike fairy tale fantasy with the harsher, violence realities of life, however, this has much more in common with the likes of Paperhouse (1988) and I’m Not Scared (2003). There are even aspects of the poliziotteschi genre despite the themes of innocence, experience, fantasy and reality explored through Luna’s point-of-view. She refuses to be silent and finds her voice, determined to locate what is lost. It’s a mature and assured central performance by the Polish-born Jedlikowska who carries this visually gorgeous feature more than capably on her shoulders.
There are not many pieces of work that can straddle so many genres but this allegorical coming-of-age-fantasy-romance-crime drama meditates on first love, rebellion, grief and tragedy. It takes elements of all those familiar genre motifs and fuses them so succinctly to create something unique and profoundly affecting; embracing the power of myth and philosophically laying ghosts to rest.