Emanuele Crialese's second feature, which opens Friday at select theaters in the Triangle, has a very familiar feel. This tale of a Sicilian fishing family and the impoverished village in which they live recalls such landmarks of Italian neo-realism as Visconti's La Terra Trema (1948) and Pontecorvo's Wide Blue Road (1957). However, the social realism and labor consciousness that animated those films takes a back seat in Respiro in favor of a more contemporary treatment of a character in crisis.
"Respiro" is Italian for "breath", and the film's heroine Grazia (Valeria Golino, a bilingual talent who's been seen most recently in Frida) is a young mother who fears the stifling embrace of her culture. Though still young and beautiful, Grazia has three adolescent children and a husband who is a devoted, hard-working fisherman but who lacks the imagination and resources to offer her the fulfillment she craves.
And what's missing from Grazia's life? Mostly, she wants to go out on a boat and see the ocean, and she'd like to be able to skinny-dip from time to time. As modest as her desires are, the lingering sexism of the village culture discourages them. As a result, Grazia begins to alarm her family and neighbors with her erratic behavior, and there's talk of sending her to a psychiatric clinic in Milan.
Respiro works best in the small episodes, such as the chronic and violent brawling that goes on among the local boys, the courtship of Grazia's teenaged daughter and the ways in which a pre-teen boy is permitted to boss his mother around in the absence of Pappa--as does Grazia's youngest child, in a startling performance from Filippo Pucillo that suggests an embryonic version of James Caan's Sonny Corleone.