We meet them all at a tearful Italian dockside farewell.
A family is disembarking for France, looking for better opportunities than their tiny coastal village can provide them. Mamma is crying, but little Lucia is inconsolable. Mother and father area leaving, and taking her kid brother with them.
Tweenage Lucia (Marta Castiglia) insists, “I’m all grown UP now! I can work, too!”
But no, she’s not old enough to work and she’d be another mouth to feed. She must stay here, in her quaint, aging-and-dying village, a place younger people leave because there’s no work.
Mom may promise to be home by Christmas, that she’ll call and write, but Lucia knows she’ll be on her own, “Alone With Her Dreams.”
The debut feature of Paolo Licata is an adaptation of the novel “Picciridda – Con i piedi nella sabbia” by Catena Fiorello, a coming-of-age tale with some bite, a picturesque period piece that finds the ugliness whitewashed over in any small town and not just an Italian fishing village.
Lucia will learn this through her stern, scowling grandmother, called “Donna Maria” (Lucia Sardo) by her neighbors. It’s a label of “respect,” she tells her granddaughter. But the kid understands Granny’s other nickname without explanation — “The General.”
Grandma is bossy, short-tempered and quick with a slap or to whip out a spoon for a quick serving of corporal punishment.
Lucia has to content herself playing with her favorite chicken all through the sunbaked summer. In fall, school starts and the attentions of a new friend (Nicoletta Cifariello), who adores her and lets the viewer know that someday she’ll graduate from kissing pictures of her favorite actresses and divas on the covers of magazines to kissing real live girls.
But that’s of no concern to Lucia, who is just old enough to start picking up on a family feud. Here in this village, where everyone knows everyone else, and their history, there are still secrets. And a big one is why The General isn’t on speaking terms with her sister Pina (Ileana Rigano) or Pina’s vivacious daughter Rosamaria (Katia Greco).
Stumbling on Rosamaria having a go with a local married man in a coastal cave isn’t the “secret,” shameful and dangerous though that might be. What is it?
Director and co-adaptor Licata vividly recreates a time and a place. The lack of cars in this village suggests it might be a coastal island, and the kids are all free range in a seemingly idyllic, if dying, piece of Old Italia.
It is the closeness of death of many of the inhabitants that first tips us that The General might not be the villain she seems. “No one dresses the dead like Donna Maria,” her granddaughter is told (in Italian with English subtitles). She comes whenever called to prepare the dead for their funerals.
Her threats to Lucia about associating with Pina’s family suggest she’ll “cut your hand” if she catches them hanging out. So naturally, that’s what the kid does. Pina dotes on her and Rosamaria takes her in as a co-conspirator in the torrid affair she’s having with the icecream vendor.
But as stern as The General is about chores, coming home after school, reading her parents’ letters aloud (the old woman is illiterate) and staying away from Pina, she knows “there is no life here.” She knows that when her family comes for her, Lucia should leave and never come back.
The performances here have a consistent brittle tenderness, adults and children playing a sort of getting-on-with-a-limited-life resignation that doesn’t allow much pleasure into it.
The film’s third act surprises pack a punch, and make a touchy change in tone in a movie that is never quite “Cinema Paradiso” sunny. It tells a story that reaches a climax, finds another and drifts on a bit after that second one.
It’s still a mesmerizing visit to Italy as it was, natural beauty and quaint “character” hiding the same harsh truths and ugly realities that any place else has.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, sexual situations
Cast: Marta Castiglia, Lucia Sardo, Katia Greco, Ileana Rigano, Nicoletta Cifariello
Credits: Directed by Paolo Licata, script by Paolo Licata, Ugo Chiti and Catena Fiorello, based on the novel by Catena Fiorello. A Corinth Films release on Film Movement Plus.
Running time: 1:39