Set as it is in a remote fishing village on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Respiro brings to mind a great film made over fifty years ago: La Terra Trema (1948). But where Luchino Visconti’s neo-realist classic dramatises the struggles of a harsh working life, Emanuele Crialese’s film focuses on a poetic evocation of local myth. The myth in question is that of a persecuted woman who drowns herself but is then brought back to life by the guilty prayers of the villagers. It’s not wrought in exactly those terms, but it’s an effective basis for the film for two reasons.
Firstly, it provides a rationale for the film’s elemental imagery, especially fire and water: precariously tall bonfires and extraordinary underwater shots. Derivative perhaps, but rendered in a highly unusual way – there is one scene in which a statue of the Virgin Mary is placed on the seabed, and I’ve never seen anything like the film’s closing moments. The second reason derives from the film’s setting: a community whose habits are clearly far removed from urban norms, no doubt just as far from everyday life in nearby Milan as more familiar environments closer to home.
One way to gain a real cinematic insight into life in a community is to dramatise the local reactions to someone who doesn’t quite fit in. And that’s the role of Grazia, played with a kind of earthy innocence by Valeria Golino (she hardly looks a day older than she did in Rain Man, some 15 years ago). She’s the wife of a fisherman (Pietro, played by Vincenzo Amato) and mother of three, whose impulsive behaviour and violent mood swings do not conform to the villagers’ ideas of acceptable behaviour. So much so that her husband is eventually persuaded to insist on her visiting a psychiatrist in Milan. Here she is "medicated" if she becomes over-excited – but the film avoids the pitfall of "designer mental illness" (see Betty Blue  or Girl, Interrupted ). The problematic consequences of her actions are fully explored, culminating in her release of all the captured wild dogs on the island, which then overrun the village, leading to another extraordinary, chaotic scene in which all the men in the village fire rifles at them from the rooftops.
The film also avoids the pitfalls associated with many arthouse films set in idyllic locations. Of course, in real life in rural Italy there is not much time for lounging around on the beach or skinny-dipping, and the film does not shy away from the oppressive realities of life in a self-contained community where everyone knows each other. Depressingly stereotypical roles of macho, violent men and manipulative, gossiping women have a firm hold over many of the island’s inhabitants. The clashes between gangs of youths on the island are often vicious: the boys beat and humiliate each other, stripping their enemies naked and at one stage, rolling a boy through a nest of sea urchins. The adults seem to accept this behaviour as a fact of life. In fact, Pietro’s behaviour is little different, allowing a rival boy to beat his son after he injures him with a catapult, fighting a French tourist who flirts with Grazia and even getting jealous of Grazia’s affection for the dog.
But there are also moments of joy and harmony, more effective in contrast to some of the more brutal exchanges. At the end of the day, the fishermen throw fish to the children, who then exchange them for raffle tickets. At one point, the youngest boy wins a toy train set, which is fixated on by the whole family, revealing an ironic counterpoint to the train as a symbol of freedom – used most effectively in another poetic film about a poor community: Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955).