Trouble in paradise

Dark undercurrents stir up primal forces in Respiro

Respiro is a portrait of an isolated Italian community on the island of Lampedusa that feels like the edge of the earth. It's a place where masses of wild, tanned boys roam the countryside, capturing and then roasting tiny songbirds like Lord of the Flies children-of-nature-gone-heathen. When a rival group of boys enter their domain, they are stripped and beaten and sent walking through the wilderness clutching their penises.

Grazia (Valeria Golina), a sexy mother with untamed hair and confused eyes, buzzes around the island on a moped before stripping to swim in the hallucinogenic blue water with her two young sons. Tiny lords of their mother's chastity, the boys shriek and gesticulate frantically — begging their mother to put her dress back on before someone sees.

The air in Respiro is charged with primitive forces that emerge in unexpected moments. Each night the sexually precocious local children promenade, like Fellini streetwalkers, down the town's boulevards, and the boys beg pretty girls to "tattoo" their bare chests with ballpoint pens. The tiny, preening boys lift their T-shirts to expose their chests and whisper propositions to the girls as they inscribe their flesh with drawings of seagulls.

The intoxicating, woozy brew of sunshine, sea and sex is given further psychological complexity in John Surman's score, which has the sinister, vortical quality of Philip Glass and leads the story further and further away to the craggy edge of the cliffs where the climax of the story unfolds.

Grazia, we discover, is not simply a capricious beauty. She erupts into crazed fits when her fisherman husband Pietro (Vincenzo Amato) beats her son Pasquale (Francesco Casisa) in front of the neighbors. The threat of violence also looms large in Grazia's relationship with Pietro, a man perturbed by his wife's sexual provocations and willful disobedience. But her sons are devoted to her in the manner of lifelong servants. They are intimately aware of her vulnerabilities and brace themselves for the next moment she will go mad.

When Grazia disappears near the conclusion of the film, the intimacy of the community becomes menacing. There is an undercurrent of social violence at work in this small village where a sense of claustrophobia is strangely contrasted by the limitless sky and sea that surround it. The possibility that this tiny civilization could turn and devour its own endows the film with a sense of danger. The tone is often reminiscent of Tennessee Williams' creepy Suddenly, Last Summer in which a gay man who has sexually toyed with the boys in a Spanish village is ripped to bits in the film's startling climax. Director and writer Emanuele Crialese is expert at conveying the contradictions of life on this island — the extremes of natural beauty and human ugliness; the devotion of family and its two-faced, self-interest.

Brothers Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), who has a head of red Brillo hair, and Pasquale, a gorgeous, emergent Adonis, are more husband and companion to Grazia than Pietro is. Fiercely devoted to their beloved mama, they trail her like the two dogs that are also perpetually in her wake. Their loyalty is heartwrenching when the family threatens to send their sick mother away to Milan.

But there are also darker suggestions of a brutal, proprietary machismo at work in their actions. Filippo grows furious when he and his gang catch his busty teenage sister Marinella (Veronica D'Agostino) alone at the seaside with her policeman boyfriend. At first the confrontation is ridiculous; this tiny, gangly kid chastising his nearly grown sister. But then one senses the imposing weight of community and tradition. Like his father, Filippo fears for the family honor and one perceives the invisible cord around his sister's neck that makes even these little boys her master.

Though portents of violence and sexual excess are everywhere, there is also a ferocious beauty to this place that makes its brutality more troubling. Fabio Zamarion's photography is equally haunting as it conveys some of the bizarre contradictions of the film. On several occasions, director Crialese shows action from peculiar points of view: masses of legs seen from the depths of the ocean as they kick and swim in the water; Marinella's clumsy high heels as she tries to negotiate the rocks and fissures of the coastline. By focusing on those details, Crialese gets at the emotional core of things, like the sister desperately tarted up for sex, searching for a remote place to be with her lover. She is an inexperienced child teetering on a woman's heels, but also ravenously adult in her desire to be with the boy.

Respiro is a psychologically dense, provocative film that feels like a cautionary tale about a vision of paradise that is compromised by a civilization that keeps uncontrollable forces in check.