In 1993, the Sicilian mafia kidnapped eleven-year-old Giuseppe de Matteo, the son of a former mafia member-turned-informer and held him captive for over two years before murdering him. While the real-life details are not prerequisites to appreciating the ensuing story – I had no idea of this fact until the film’s coda. Knowledge of the historical context of Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Sicilian Ghost Story adds significant nuance to an already unsettling but strangely uplifting film experience.
The adult fairy tale follows twelve-year-old Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), a young girl from a small Sicilian village whose school-yard crush on her affable classmate, Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez), has gotten her in trouble at home. Her parents continually warn her against spending time with the elusive boy who enjoys horse-riding and exploring nature. When Giuseppe mysteriously stops coming to school the local adults feign ignorance regarding his absence. We learn Giuseppe has been kidnapped by former friends of his father posing as police. Determined to find him, Luna recruits her best friend Loredana (Corinne Musallari) to search for him in the nearby forests.
While the film doesn’t follow the template of any particular fairy tale, it heads deep into fable territory, incorporating motifs from Red Riding Hood and Babes in the Wood amongst others. Children, abandoned by parents, attempt to navigate a world in which fears of the natural world are greatly outstripped by actions by adults.
However, Sicilian Ghost Story avoids the pitfalls found in the unrelentingly bleak All the Money in the World (2017), another film based on a real-life child abduction. Where that recent film clung to a gritty realism which did not allow for any breathing room, Sicilian Ghost Story, much like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), permits its child protagonists agency through their imaginations. Both main characters grow stronger thanks to their fantasy of each other, which emboldens Luna to challenge the status quo of her craven society in her search for the truth and enables Giuseppe to hold out for the possibility of hope in the darkest of circumstances.
With the recent run of gone girls in popular media, it is also interesting to see a narrative with a female detective and a missing male character at the centre. The young cast does a considerable job in their roles, creating a tenable link in which each is in turn dependent and depended upon the other. Fernandez’s Giuseppe is a gentle, capable young man whose continuing presence in the world would undoubtedly have been a positive one. Jedlikowska’s Luna is relentlessly inquisitive and observant, refusing to accept anything at face value.
Grassadonia and Piazza’s Sicilian Ghost Story becomes a way of exorcising the ghosts of Giuseppe’s unimaginable ordeal, and, in turn, a way of addressing the trauma of a horrific event which has haunted Sicily for two decades. It is a love story in many ways: a story about star-crossed lovers but also a love letter to a young boy who, we can only hope, managed in some way to find some sort of joy in the last desperate moments of a life which was violently cut short. It is a nightmare which, in its telling, is elevated above its terrifying subject matter.