The politics of fantasy and the radical power of love

The true-story kidnapping and murder of a pre-teen boy by the mafia makes for the most chilling of ‘true crime’ stories. But with the award-winning Sicilian Ghost Story, filmmakers Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia choose the fairy tale idiom to offer a radical response to gritty mafia narratives that is informed by love, not nihilism. TEODOR RELJIC speaks to Piazza as the acclaimed film makes its way to local cinemas this week

This won’t be the first time that Maltese audiences will be able to get a look into Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s engrossing and courageous second feature film, Sicilian Ghost Story – which in last January won the David di Donatello award for Best Adapted Script. Having premiered at last year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival, the filmmaking duo’s re-imagining of a harrowing true crime episode that shook Italian society made its way to our shores later on that year, as it was screened at the 2017 edition of the Valletta Film Festival.

The filmmakers, whose connection with the island also extends to their participation as tutors within the MA in Film Studies at the University of Malta, were also in attendance at the film’s Maltese premiere at the Festival, where its cinematographer Luca Bigazzi eventually took home the award for Best Cinematography.

But for a bit before and quite a bit since, the film – which was MaltaToday’s top film of 2017 – would go on to score praise from an international array of critics, equally beguiled as I was by Grassadonia and Piazza’s unique treatment of a story that is adamant to present an alternative to shallow – and often ethically suspect – treatments of the mafia-based narratives.

Taking its cue from the shocking real-life murder of a young boy, Giuseppe Di Matteo (1981-1996) as retold through a short story by Marco Mancassola, Piazza and Grassadonia spin a slowly unfolding but deeply affecting tale of innocence mercilessly crushed by the long hand of organised crime, as Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is punished for his father’s betrayal of the Sicilian mafia’s code of silence after he agrees to turn state’s evidence – thus becoming a ‘pentito’ in the eyes of his former colleagues.

Giuseppe, however, has a champion in his resilient classmate Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), who refuses to give in to her community’s passive acceptance of Giuseppe’s disappearance – butting heads with her arch and unforgiving mother (Sabine Timoteo) in particular – and sets about searching for him on her lonesome attempt when all other avenues prove fruitless.

Following a blazingly successful run in UK cinemas, Sicilian Ghost Story is currently screening at Eden Cinemas in St Julian’s. Speaking to Antonio Piazza over the phone earlier this week, I asked whether he was in any way taken aback by the response to the film in what he deems the “Ango-Saxon” world, as opposed to his native Italy.

“The response to the film in Britain and Ireland has been incredible – we just got incredible press. We certainly didn’t expect all that strong a reaction, but we kind of knew that, generally speaking, that region would be more receptive to our mode of filmmaking than the Italian context would be,” Piazza said, referring to the peculiar generic mix that makes up the Sicilian Ghost Story aesthetic.

“In the Anglo-Saxon world, most audiences will have no problem embracing a story that mixes genres, or even one – like ours – that combines a harrowing true crime with the hints of the supernatural.” Here, I can’t help but remind Piazza of a particular social media missive he let out in the wake of some sniffy criticism of the film from Italy; specifically, that it took the Oscar-winning Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro to “remind us that fantasy is also political”.

In fact, the comparison between Del Toro’s earlier Spanish-language films in particular (perhaps less so than the comparatively tender and safe Shape of Water), carries some weight when placed side-by-side with Piazza and Grassadonia’s film. Just like Del Toro told unflinching stories of the Franco regime as shot through the eyes of children both aided and obstructed by supernatural forces and creatures, so the two Sicilian filmmakers channel a fairy tale and ghost story aesthetic to empower a young protagonist facing the fallout of the rot that underlies her society.

“Now, I want to clarify that my dig was not at Italian filmmakers – there are some very strong and very fresh voices emerging in the Italian scene at the moment. Actually, I’d hazard to say that we’re experiencing something of a return to form – we’ve taken a dip in the 80s and 90s, but the new stuff augurs well. No, what I was getting at has more to do with a type of critical reception that tends to be prevalent in our country. Let’s call it post-Marxist. Those kinds of critics will always be suspect of our cinema because they will always expect films to state an explicit social intent. But the amusing thing is that these same critics would praise this mode when someone like Guillermo Del Toro is engaging with it, while they would criticise local filmmakers for doing so...”

Piazza insists that this is certainly not a direction that he and his filmmaking partner take – something which was also evident in their debut feature film Salvo (2013) which grew out of the short film ‘Rita’, and which focused on the strange bond that’s established between a blind girl and a mafia hitman. It’s an approach that, Piazza suggests, cannot find a comfortable fit in either of the two key strands of Italian cinema at the moment – neither the mainstream nor the arthouse. Because while the former is made up of well-made but largely inoffensive films (“they’re not always comedies, but they tend to be most of the time”) the latter would be populated with gritty kitchen sink dramas based on social problems – descendants of Italian neorealism.

Grassadonia and Piazza accepting the Donatello award for Best Adapted Screenplay last January
Grassadonia and Piazza accepting the Donatello award for Best Adapted Screenplay last January

“Our films are more closely connected to the world of dreams, nightmares... hidden desires and visions. They beg for a more metaphysical contemplation,” Piazza says, while insisting that this space – the mental space that takes in dreams and desires – is also “deeply political”.

“Our heroine, Luna, chooses love. Despite how everyone around her is sceptical of this, despite the harsh reality that she faces, her love for Giuseppe is what allows her to confront what she’s facing.” Piazza considers this emotional focus to be a “radical act”, especially when it’s read through the lens of how we’re used to seeing mafiosi on screen.

“What is common to both Sicilian Ghost Story and Salvo – and our short film ‘Rita’, too – is that they’re all about an unlikely encounter between two people, one that leads to a radical change in how they view themselves and the world. This is what’s important to us.”

And it is for this reason that the mafiosi we actually see in Sicilian Ghost Story – the thugs that steal Giuseppe away and keep him hostage – are represented as dumb, “banal” figures.

“With the fairy-tale milieu of the story, we wanted them to be the trolls – the ogres. Just dumb, uninteresting lugs following orders.”

This was vitally important to the filmmakers, who are both wary and weary of representations of mafia in popular culture.

“It all started with a masterpiece, of course – Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. But that film is saved by being, precisely, a masterpiece – a story that transcends the mafia milieu to become a Greek tragedy of sorts. But subsequently, and even to this day, you will see mafiosi being represented as the heroes of the story. You’ll find kids quoting the lines of their favourite TV mafiosi while playing in the street. Now, we know that the mafia network in Italy is still heavily involved in international drug trafficking, that they practically own large parts of the South of Italy, and that in a lot of ways, they’ve ensured that the lines between the legal and illegal economy remain completely blurred.”

For this reason, Piazza adds, being sensitive to how they portray the mafia on screen is a “deep ethical concern”.

“And this also extends to how their victims are portrayed. Portraying them as entirely pure, martyr-like creatures is also unacceptable.”

It is an approach that makes a heroine like Luna to be a humane and entirely plausible way into the dark underworld she plunges us into as we follow her along, on what seems to be a futile quest to rescue Giuseppe, because nobody else will.

Philip Larkin once wrote that “what will survive of us is love”, and Luna’s brave embrace of what is indeed a radical emotive choice reverberates out of Piazza and Grassadonia’s potent, affecting and thoroughly heartfelt opus.


Sicilian Ghost Story will be showing at Eden Cinemas, St Julian’s with two shows a day until the end of August