“Respiro,” Emanuele Crialese's pungent portrait of a fishing community on an island off the western coast of Sicily which premieres in Geneva at the Smith Opera House this weekend, bursts with such pulsing vitality and sensual appreciation of nature that you can almost taste the salty air and feel the sun beating down on your shoulders. It's easy to envy its characters, who vent their feelings in fiery eruptions that quickly cool and whose minds remain uncluttered by the nagging temptations served up by modern mass media.
The village may teem with motorbikes, but the residents make their living (as did their ancestors) from the sea and the land, the wives packing the fish that their husbands catch. Television, if it exists at all, remains far in the background. Personal behavior is governed by a strict Italian Roman Catholic code of values that few seem to question. It is also a place where everybody knows everybody else's business. But that lack of privacy is one of the inevitable costs of living in a place whose livelihood depends on community solidarity.
Another price is a low tolerance for difference and nonconformity.
The movie's central character, Grazia (Valeria Golino), is a fisherman's beautiful young wife and a mother of three whose wild mood swings and erratic behavior begin to rankle the town and to precipitate domestic havoc. Impulsive and emotionally volatile, Grazia creates a minor scandal after she is spotted bathing topless in the ocean with her young sons, Pasquale (Francesco Casisa), who is 13, and his little brother, Filippo (Filippo Pucillo). She regularly breaks the traffic laws by piling three on a motorbike but charms the local police into letting her off without a ticket.
At home, ordinary marital squabbles can drive Grazia into seizures in which she has to be held down while her husband, Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), administers a sedative with a hypodermic. Pietro adores his wife despite her problems, and the movie makes it plain that they enjoy a sizzling erotic connection.
But as Grazia's emotional state grows more precarious, her family and neighbors decide she has become unmanageable, and the decision is made to send her to Milan for treatment. Grazia furiously resists and ends up running away to hide in one of the many caves in the seaside cliffs. While the entire village conducts a search, Pasquale, the only person who knows her whereabouts, secretly supplies her with food and clothing. Desperately lonely but fearful lest discovery mean she would be sent to a mental hospital, Grazia holds out until the search is abandoned.
In a film that begins in a neo-realist mode (Rossellini's “Stromboli” and Pontecorvo's “Wide Blue Road” are obvious forerunners), Grazia's self-exile eventually takes on a mythic dimension. In fact, “Respiro” was inspired by the local legend of an unconventional young woman, scorned by the townspeople, who disappeared, leaving her clothes on the beach. As the weeks passed, the town felt guilty for having driven her to suicide and through the power of prayer restored her to life and to her family.
The Smith Opera House screens “Respiro” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It is rated PG-13 for nudity and thematic elements. In Italian with subtitles, its running time is one hour, 35 minutes. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students and seniors. All seats on Thursday are $3. Call 781-5483 or toll-free 866-355-5483 for details or to pre-order tickets.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.