Aug 6, 2003 at 12:00 am

Respiro is situated in the present, in and around a village on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a setting which seems both harsh and idyllic. It’s a relatively isolated community and the old ways prevail. The men, who mostly fish for a living, are macho and the women, many of whom work in a local canning factory, are subservient. The notable exception is Grazia (Valeria Golino), the young mother of three children who seems to be suffering from manic depression, moody at times and inexplicably exhilarated at others, sometimes to the extent that she has to be given an injection to calm her down. She’s a scandal to the locals and her relatives who want to send her to Milan for some professional help, and an embarrassment to her husband Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), who loves her dearly.

The film is most interesting during its first two-thirds, when it seems to be an odd mix of A Woman Under The Influence and Lord of the Flies, moving between Grazia’s indiscretions and scenes of the island’s children who, with a lot of unsupervised free time on their hands, have formed two warring groups who like to pounce on each other, beating their rivals mercilessly and stripping them of all their clothes. It’s like the back story to a Scorsese film, with future blood wars being anticipated by these scuffles which rise out of too much heat and boredom and childish energy — though you know that these kids will eventually be tamed and taught a trade.

It’s also during this first part that we get the most intriguing views of village life, especially with the slow but steady courtship of Grazia’s daughter and a local cop who looks to be about 17 years old. It’s a relationship that develops despite the interference of her younger brother Flippo, a little squirt who’s as imperious as a Mafia don. (It’s a very good and seemingly natural comic performance.)

But once Grazia decides to run away, with the help of her other son Pasquale, the point of the story becomes vague. Is Grazia supposed to be a free spirit stifled by the small-minded villagers or is she someone in need of need of psychiatric attention? Writer-director Emanuele Crialese has based his story on an old legend, and its neo-realistic depiction of island life doesn’t mesh with its metaphoric and poetic ending. The mode changes from closely observed behavior to implied transcendence while the story, slight but interesting, seems to evaporate into a wistful mistiness.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Saturday, Aug. 8-9, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 10 at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].