There is nothing more savage in this world than violence perpetrated against a child. The inhumanity of striking a little girl, the cruelty of inflicting pain of any kind on a boy, those are undeniably the darkest moments for mankind.
It is within the realm of one such unbearable acts that ‘Sicilian Ghost Story’ takes place. Yet Antonio Piazza’s and Fabio Grassadonia’s follow up to their award winning, masterful ‘Salvo’ is a fantastical love story first, and a fact-inspired cautionary tale of violence second. And with those two impossible companions, love and violence, walking hand in hand, Piazza and Grassadonia have created a masterpiece.
When I first viewed 'Sicilian Ghost Story' in Cannes, when it kicked off the 2017 Critics Week selection, I wrote this about the film in my Cannes Diaries:
This month, it was announced that 'Sicilian Ghost Story' will finally get a US fall distribution through Strand Releasing which of course is great news, after the film conquered yet more hearts in NYC when it opened the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2018 showcase at Film Society at Lincoln Center.
But back to this magnificently magical film itself. 'Sicilian Ghost Story' is inspired by the real life events of Giuseppe Di Matteo’s mafia kidnapping, and subsequent murder in the early 90s. But in Piazza's and Grassadonia's film there is redemption, unlike so often in life, and that comes in the form of his classmate Luna whose love for Giuseppe creates a light of possibilities that allows the audience to deal with the darkest moments in the story.
The film made history before it was even screened, the first Italian movie ever to open the Semaine de la Critique in Cannes. But the film is also rooted in another kind of history, the problematic story of Sicily, a land tied politically to Italy and yet so far in terms of infrastructure and administration that it may as well belong to North Africa.
Perhaps most heartbreaking is that Sicily is also the best land in Italy, geographically perfect and with breathtaking landscapes. While growing up, it seemed a mystical land to me, the region my mother would often refer to as “the most beautiful place on earth” and while she made the decision for us to move to the United States, she often said, “if that doesn’t work out, we’ll go to Sicily”. Here I am, countless years later and I still get shivers of hope when I hear a Sicilian accent, or taste their mouth-watering sweets. So a film, a magical oeuvre like ‘Sicilian Ghost Story’ simply sends me to the moon, and leaves me there for a few days after viewing it.
In their directors’ statement, the filmmakers quote 20th century writer and playwright Leonardo Sciascia, who wrote “Sicily is all a realm of fantasy: and what can anyone do there without imagination?” Perhaps those shivers I feel have to do with this deep Sicilian understanding that life becomes unbearable without our ability to believe, believe in something — magic, love, and yes, even ghosts.
I sat down with Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia, finally meeting them in person after years of a virtual friendship, and I’ll admit that I found them not unlike their films: beguiling, otherworldly and hope-inspiring.
How do you manage, after ‘Salvo’ to make another yet film which allows us to believe in magic, and to believe in love? Even though you frame it in this very violent story, and yet we walk away believing in love.
Antonio Piazza: The film is inspired on a real event which happened in Sicily in the 90s. The infamous murder of a kid after a kidnapping and a long period of imprisonment. But for us this story was important, it was the horrible closing of the most horrible period of our Sicilian history of the 80s and the 90s. This story somehow is the epitome of the horror.
It was the worst of humanity.
Piazza: Yes, the worst of humanity. Back then we didn’t know each other but we both decided to leave Sicily after it to find another place to live.
That was the spark for both of you, separately?
Fabio Grassadonia: Yes, that was the moment.
Piazza: This story was in our conscience for a long time, always there, but we thought it was impossible to tell it because it’s one without any possible catharsis and redemption, for anyone.
And you need that in cinema.
Piazza: Yes, not just in cinema but what would be the purpose of telling this story to repeat the horror? No. At some point we read a short story written by an Italian writer called Marco Mancassola, and this short story is inspired by the same event, but Marco had the idea of crossing the real elements from the story with a fantastical dimension. And even though the short story goes another direction because the girl becomes an adult and Giuseppe is portrayed as a sort of superhero protecting her, at the core of the story, this idea of crossing these two elements for us was how we connected to this film. Because through this idea of a fantastical dimension, of a fairy tale, we could tell both levels of the story. The dark fable, in order to tell this horrible event, which in the film respect the reality of what happened.
On the other hand is the love between the two main characters, this endurable love that persists against everything is like Romeo and Juliet. That’s why, you asked about love, it’s only this idea about love defeating all that let us do the film.
Fabio, do you think that working together with Antonio, this great working relationship between you allows your stories also to find hopefulness through human connections?
Grassadonia: Yes. Because we really believe that something miraculous can still happen in a meeting between two human beings. In a real meeting between two human beings the most is still a possibility. Also ‘Salvo’ has this kind of meeting. It’s the kind of meeting that can drag you out of a given path. In a way it’s what happened to us because when we met in Torino, we were there to complete our studies, he was a journalist and I was a teacher, and this meeting really changed our lives. We decided to become screenwriters, we decided to move to Rome and start this new career.
And filmmakers in Italy which is an impossible impossibility!
Grassadonia: That’s quite difficult. And after more than ten years of screenwriting for television, so really things we didn’t like, we said it’s time to do something meaningful to us. Lets try to tell our story from our point of view, and in that moment when we started to assume these risks, we found it necessary to come back to the place where we come from, and from where we escaped more than twenty years before. And we have to deal with our rage, our feelings, our emotions, with our experiences as Sicilian human beings and we decided we wanted to go to the core of that experience. What it meant to us. For this reason, all our stories until now, the short, then the first feature and now the second feature are about a meeting between two human beings isolated from the rest of the world surrounding them.
Sicily is at the core of your stories, she’s almost a third character…
Grassadonia: All the energy that we feel regarding our story comes from our experience as Sicilian people and with wounds — deep wounds still bleeding. But the beautiful thing about this new meeting between us and our country land is that now we have established a new relationship with this place, possible through the people we work with, the kids we met for our second feature. It’s a new relation full of light not, as it was a few years ago, only on the dark side.
How would you each describe each other to someone who doesn’t know you?
Grassadonia: Antonio is really smart and he’s generous but sometimes he relies too much on his intelligence so he tries to achieve what he wants to achieve without a lot of effort. For me that’s not acceptable so we collide and crash all the time about this.
Piazza: Fabio is the most intelligent person I’ve ever met and I am deeply fascinated with intelligent people. I must admit that if there is a way to make me fall in love with someone it’s through their intelligence. He never surrenders, in many occasions where I would have surrendered and say enough he didn’t stop. He led both of us to resist and continue. He’s not an easy person with everybody. Sometimes people feel uncomfortable with him because he never looks for compromise. Compromise is a word that doesn’t exist for him. No compromise at all which sometimes makes our relationship with the world around us complicated. He also has an incredible quality which I don’t have. People think I’m the good cop of the two and when I say something critical people are shocked, even too shocked. Fabio is able to say the most terrible things but still without hurting the people.