Based on a horrifying true story of the kidnap by the mafia of a 13 year old boy in 1993, but infusing the tale with dark woodland fantasy, Sicilian Ghost Story naturally invites comparisons to Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. It has an adventurous young girl at its centre, soulless human authority figures, and a creature watching the protagonists through the trees. What it lacks, however, is Pan’s Labyrinth’s consistency of delivering wonder and horror, instead coming across as del Toro-lite, with lots of elements to recommend it that only sometimes cohere into a compelling whole.
The victim of the kidnap was an informant’s son, Giuseppe di Matteo (Gaetano Fernandez), but Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s film doesn’t place him at the centre of the story. Instead, they invent a classmate, Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) who, smitten with Giuseppe, becomes the only townsperson to seriously investigate his disappearance. Organised crime and its codes of silence have suffocated any real attempts to get Giuseppe home safe. Luna’s shock and rage at this state of affairs soon starts to push in ever more surreal directions, until neither she nor the audience are sure of what’s real and what’s a figment of her tragedy-skewed imagination.
Both lead kids turn in good performances, and the film takes them seriously. Their courtship is sweet and sincere – we see exactly why Luna would fall so hard for Giuseppe, so her subsequent fruitless quests don’t seem ridiculous or simply the games of a silly child. But, as the story draws on, Grassadonia and Piazza lose their previously solid grasp of pacing and tone, and there are some glacial periods of waiting around that really could have been shortened. Adult characters are more hit and miss than the young cast – Luna’s dad is a well-drawn figure in her life, kindly and understanding, but her gothic horror witch of a mother seems to have come from a different film entirely.
Yet, just when you feel Sicilian Ghost Story has tried your patience too much, it hits you with a spectacular shot or music cue that jolts you upright. One moment, toward the end of the film, is so grotesque and horrifying yet eerily beautiful that it sends a surge down your spine like you’ve just grabbed an electric fence. The filmmakers conjure many stunningly gorgeous vistas and the score is always fascinating and original; very pretty paper over some considerable cracks in the film’s foundations.