Emanuele Crialese's "Respiro" (I Breathe) is beautifully directed, but that doesn't keep it from seeming faintly silly. Inspired by a legend on the island of Lampedusa off the west coast of Sicily, where the film was shot, it stars Valeria Golino as the seductive wife of a virile, devoted fisherman, Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), and the mother of their three children. Golino's Grazia is a determined free spirit who feels a strong communion with the deep blue sea that surrounds her.
Grazia most definitely has a reckless streak. When she goes swimming with her sons, Pasquale (Francesco Casisa), who looks to be 13 or 14, and Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), who could be 10, she goes topless -- just as her husband's boat (with his crew aboard) passes by and much to Pietro's embarrassment. Another day, Pietro comes upon her as she is boarding a boat belonging to -- or rented by -- a pair of French fishermen whom she has just asked if she may go along for the ride.
Is Grazia but a creature of impulse? Or a mermaid or goddess of the sea who has assumed human form? Crialese seems to want to keep us guessing, yet early on there's a scene in which Grazia has an extended epileptic-like seizure. That her family keeps a supply of syringes to administer a tranquilizing drug suggests that this is not an unusual occurrence. No wonder the local pharmacist strongly advises that Grazia be taken to Milan to be diagnosed by her brother, who is associated with a psychiatric institution.
This introduces a sensible idea that the film cannot actually sustain, for Crialese insists that the answer lies in the community putting aside its crueler, more conformist urges to bring Grazia to a state of normality through a collective loving embrace -- so much for medical science. Indeed, it might have been a smart move to have set the film in the past, the further back the better.
The film doubtless works better for those able to accept it unquestioningly as a charming fable of the redemptive, healing power of love that it means to be. Crialese certainly does capture the overwhelming sensuality of its many beautiful people and its sun-drenched locale. All that hot Sicilian blood is palpable, but to his credit Crialese resists caricature and is wonderful with actors. They include Veronica D'Agostino as Grazia's teenage daughter, who already has an opulent Lorenesque figure and is discovering its impact on men.
Crialese suggests links between landscape, climate and behavior that is expressed with a flowing, light-handed grace, which in turned is echoed by John Surman's lush, mesmerizing score.
It might just be that Crialese's most impressive accomplishment is that he has been able to create an often highly seductive film without any actual sex whatsoever.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for nudity and thematic elements.
Times guidelines: Considerable sensuality, adult themes.
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Fandango production in co-production with Les Films de Tournedos, Roissy Films, in association with Medusa Film, Telepiu, with the participation of TPS Cinema. Writer-director Emanuele Crialese. Producer Domenico Procacci. Cinematographer Fabio Zamarion. Editor Didier Ranz. Music John Surman. Costumes Eva Coen. Art director Beatrice Scarpato. In Italian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
At selected theaters.