Misguided Sicilian chronicles on mafia and trauma

Savina Petkova on Antonio Piazza’s & Fabio Grassadonia’s ‘Sicilian Ghost Story’ (2017)

IN 1993, A 12 YEAR OLD SICILIAN boy was abducted by the Mafia, kept imprisoned for over two years, and then viciously murdered. The people of Sicily often share the tale of growing up with this ‘ghost story’, and the ominous presence of young Giuseppe was sorely felt. The story of these Sicilian Chronicles has entered the collective consciousness and now been transformed into a feature film, directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza in theirSalvo (2013) follow-up. Yet, we are not informed of this real-life information before the film commences. We end up perceiving, for two hours of screen time, a fictitious attempt at a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ love tale. By depriving us of a ‘based on true events’ prelude, the film in fact refutes its chief worth, eats out its own flesh, by denying its value as a coping mechanism of a societal trauma.

The story is told from the taciturn daydreamer, Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), friend and classmate of the abducted Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez). She observes him, approaches him, and teases him in spite of the ill-fame of his family, which precedes the boy. In fact, as the visual metaphors show, Luna gets to know Giuseppe with the help of animals. The first time we see the young couple together, they are running for cover in the Sicilian woods, escaping the attack of a bellicose dog. As the boy distracts the aggressive canine, Luna is a silent admirer. She uses the intimacy of shared fear to give him a handwritten love letter, one that Giuseppe would hold on for dear life to when imprisoned. In spite of her parent’s wishes, Luna sneaks out to see her beloved in off-limit territory — running the risk of being exposed to the whole village by association with the mafia, yet she does not hesitate a second. In the midst of a social ban, we witness a tender sequence that proves to be a trauma for the girl to come back to — Giuseppe riding his horse in a remote arena, fully equipped in riding attire as a spectacle to an observant Luna. Her character can be defined in relation to her love interest through contemplation, investigation, and determination. As she withdraws herself away from the riding arena, leaving Guiseppe to his solitary riding pleasure, the camera zooms out to show the vastness and opulence of Sicilian countryside, as well as to hide the gruesome act of his kidnapping. The expanse of landscapes contradicts the intimacy to which we bear witness in Luna’s following attempts to recover Guiseppe’s tracks.

What is revealed later, that the young boy has been abducted for blackmail purposes, is what Luna tries to establish in her nearly neurotic fits, trying to convince a disengaged community to look for a boy that has gone missing. The contrast between what she sees — a boy lost without a trace — and what the town people see — a sought for treatment to re-establish some warped form of justice — is a frightening discrepancy of care and apathy. As the empathetic caring figure of Luna is the one we identify narratively and visually, there is no question to which kind of attitude towards justice is favoured by the filmmakers. Being based on a true and tragic story, we can only deduce that this choice of setting and the compassionate, heroic character of Luna serves as a redemption to resolve a traumatic guilty subconscious, shared between the whole of Sicilian community for decades. But does one amend being a quiescent accomplice that easy?

As the narrative advances, Luna has magical visions of events from the kidnapping, yet her knowledge is always of a past long gone, to which she has to catch up and follow the bread crumbs. In these moments of coincidence, they are portrayed as brushing upon a world of almost magic origins, with blurred forms, water to dive into, as secret passages through a labyrinth. In her meandering through symbols of purification and truth, Luna receives tokens from another (time) dimension – the past speaks to her, merging real happenings (that Giuseppe has been taken to an old fisher’s house) with non-existent places (the house does not exist on that exact place). The intertwining relation between cinema and dreams, so tiresomely discussed in film theory, in Sicilian Ghost Story serves as a justification mechanism for the unravelling of the plot.

It would have made sense to tell a real story in retrospective as to mourn a victim of a vicious criminal monopoly. Instead, Sicilian Ghost story relies on an adolescent love story with elements of magical realism to unveil what should have been already known — what happened to Giuseppe di Matteo. The film would have been perceived as a honest treatment of a trauma through sublimation: using creative mechanisms in the form of superb cinematography, exquisite detail and a combination of long shots and close ups to convey a mood of despair, loss, and a desperate attempt to rekindle hope in the face of young love. That would have been the case if Sicilian Ghost Story introduced its relation to a real tragic story from 1993 in its beginning, rather than making us run, fight, and rebel together with Luna, to untangle the enigma of her missing beau. The justification for magical amalgamation between worlds, the spiralling catching up with past and present narrative, the image of a pure adolescent love, unburdened by lust or future, all of this comes to serve a stitching purpose to a leg that’s ready for amputation. The mafia’s disease has rooted too terribly in the film’s ontological construction, that even talking about it therapeutically is not sublimating the trauma in the right way.

Release: August 3, 2018

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.