How do you re-tell a real-life horror story without forging just another exploitation movie? That’s the question that co-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza ask themselves as they approach a particularly grisly and stomach-churning piece of recent Sicilian history. Back in 1993, 12 year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo was kidnapped and ultimately murdered. His father was a former mafia associate turned police informant; the abduction was meant to stop any further revelations but when he continued to talk, poor Giuseppe was left incarcerated.
Giuseppe’s fate could easily have been turned into a lurid B movie by these Italian directors, who came to prominence with the 2013 movie Salvo. But instead Sicilian Ghost Story emerges as a poetic and haunting tribute to this victim of organised violence. Whilst it’s not a ghost story in the traditional sense, it has spirituality to it; the disappearance of Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is seen and later sensed through the perspective of his classmate, Luna (Julia Jedikowska), a fictionalised character in this story who acts as the audience surrogate.
The silence around Giuseppe’s disappearance is soon deafening; as other children and adults remain tight-lipped for fear of recriminations from the criminal brotherhood, Luna is the only one to question it. Everyone else remains complicit in this most horrendous of crimes. But when Giuseppe finds a love letter written to him from Luna, it proves his salvation amid his painful ordeal. There comes a point when they begin to communicate through the ether; two souls bound together by an innocent, childhood love.
What really separates Sicilian Ghost Story from other mafia tales is the atmosphere conjured by the directors and their cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. This is more fable than it is gritty gangster saga with frequent allusions to fairytales (not least Luna’s duffel coat is a frank reminder of Little Red Riding Hood). Perhaps the woods where Luna meets her classmate are filled with magic and the big bad wolves are the mafia foot soldiers who hold Giuseppe captive. But Grassadonia and Piazza are not glib about their theme. Sensitively directed, with touching performances, this is a worthy nod to a brave boy who faced unimaginable terror.
Sicilian Ghost Story opens on 3 August. For more details, click here.
1. Stills from Sicilian Ghost Story.