How ‘Sicilian Ghost Story’ revolutionises the Mafia film

Film-makers Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza on mixing true life crime with fantasy

In November 1993, 11-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo was abducted by the Sicilian Mafia in order to silence his father, a gangster who had become a "pentito", or turncoat. Acting on the orders of Mafia boss Giovanni Brusca, the kidnappers held the boy for 779 days – more than two years – and tortured him in a bid to stop his father from co-operating with the authorities. When that proved unsuccessful, they strangled the boy, who by that time was 13, and dissolved his body in a tub of acid in order to get rid of the evidence.

Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, the award-winning film-makers behind Salvo, recall the grisly case having a profound impact on Sicily, where they both grew up.

“It marked the horrible closing of the most horrible period of our Sicilian history of the ’80s and the ’90s,” says Piazza.

"The boy is kidnapped by a gang. But his father does not stop co-operating. And what happened after is the epitome of the horror. This infamous murder of a child after a kidnapping and a long period of imprisonment had a big effect on everyone in Sicily. It changed how people talked and thought about Cosa Nostra. In that way, it is often said that this child defeated Cosa Nostra."


That chimes with the sentiments of Di Matteo's mother. Speaking in 2008 at the inauguration of a memorial garden, Franca Castellese said: "We have won, indeed, Giuseppe won, because I think that thanks to him the Mafia has been exterminated, if not at least 70 per cent."

The awful fate of Giuseppe Di Matteo continues to have ramifications. Last week, a court in Palermo ruled that his mother and brother should receive €2.2 million in damages over the killing. The money will come from the Italian government's fund for victims of the Mafia.

Against this, there is a sense that the incident is disappearing from the collective consciousness. Writing in 2014, following the death of a three-year-old caught in a Mafia ambush, Italian author Francesco La Licata said: "Italy's collective memory is short, very short, so we always pretend to be surprised, to be left speechless [after children are murdered]." That idea weighed heavily on Grassadonia and Piazza.

“The story of Giuseppe Di Matteo stayed with us for many years,” says Piazza. “But younger people have never heard about him. We wished to push his ghost out of the dark. Because it is that younger generation who must regain the humanity we lost during that terrible time in Sicily. We talked about the possibility of making a film about him, as a kind of testament, as an act of love for him, but the story is too horrible. It is a story without any possible catharsis and redemption, not for the victim, not for anyone. And you need those things for cinema.”

The film-makers changed their mind after reading The White Knight, a short story in Marco Mancassola's collection We Won't Be Confused Forever. Inspired by the Di Matteo case, Mancassola crafted a dark fable which transforms Giuseppe into a guardian angel for his former girlfriend.

“Marco had the idea of crossing real life details with a fantastical dimension,” says Piazza. “And even though his short story goes another direction from ours because the girl becomes an adult and Giuseppe becomes a sort of superhero protecting her, this idea of crossing fantasy and reality was how we came to the film. With a fairytale, we could show this horrible event and be faithful to the details. We didn’t change anything in the historical truth. And the love between the two main characters endures despite everything, despite death. In that way they are like Romeo and Juliet.”

The result is Sicilian Ghost Story, a mesmerising new film that successfully marries puppy love, teenage angst, true life crime and the supernatural.

Standing ovation

Last year, Sicilian Ghost Story became the first Italian film to open International Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival. It received a 10-minute standing ovation and has gone on to win rave notices and various accolades, including the David di Donatello award for best adapted script.

Set in an unnamed Sicilian village at the edge of a spooky forest, the film concerns the abduction of Giuseppe, a boy of 13. Luna (played by newcomer Julia Jedlikowska), a classmate who loves him, refuses to accept his disappearance.

“We need to rebel until he is found,” she rages at her uninterested father and witchy Swiss mother. Venturing into the woods, Luna retrieves Giuseppe’s backpack. Dreams and drawings begin to fill the blanks in her fruitless, ongoing search.

“Luna’s enduring love is our way to give Giuseppe love,” says Grassadonia. “But she also is the humanity in the film. She is willing to endanger her own life to speak out against the hypocrisy and culture of silence that surrounds her.”

Many critics have cited Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive as subgenre bedfellows, although Grassadonia cites two different films as crucial influences on his adult fairytale.

"We looked a lot at The Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton, " he says. "Because this film tells the story of these two children fleeing evil from the perspective of the children. As with our film, there is a crucial river scene. But it is also a film where the narration is built by superimposed levels. It is a story with many layers. We also looked at the Japanese classic Ugetsu Monogatari by [Kenji] Mizoguchi because it is a love story between a man, a human being, and a woman who tries to attract him into the world of the dead. It was a very useful reference because it was precisely the mixture of realism and fantasy and dream that we wanted to achieve."

In the 2015 book The Mafia: A Cultural History, the cultural historian Roberto Dainotto explores the queasy mix of family values and thuggish violence underpinning the appeal of such fictional mobsters as Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano. Contemporary Italian mob films can, accordingly, be as sleek as Stefano Sollima's Suburra or as gritty as Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah.

Few film-makers, however, have done more to subvert Mafia movie tropes than Grassadonia and Piazza. Having left Sicily as a result of the events depicted in Sicilian Ghost Story, they returned to the southern Italian island in 2012 to make the award-winning Salvo, a sensory-based fable (with shades of Melville's Le Samouraï) concerning the relationship between a blind girl (Sara Serraiocco) and the Mafioso (Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri) who killed her brother. Sicilian Ghost Story marks the close of a loose trilogy, comprising Salvo and Rita, an earlier, similarly-themed 2009 short film.

“For years and years we had worked together as writers for other people, on other people’s films, and at some point we felt we needed to tell our own story,” says Piazza. “So of course we wanted it to be about Sicily, the place where we were born. But we also want to challenge the Sicilian stereotypes. And keep as distant as possible from all the usual clichés of Mafia stories.”

Sicilian Ghost Story opens August 3rd

Five adult fairytales

The Devil's Backbone (D Guillermo del Toro, 2001)
After losing his father during the Spanish Civil War, 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at the Santa Lucia School, a place which harbours orphans of the Republican militia and a ghost who wanders the grounds.

Onibaba (D Kaneto Shindo, 1964)
While her son is away at war, a wicked woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her oversexed daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) survive by killing samurai who stray into their swamp, then selling whatever possessions they find on the bodies. Until a mysterious masked stranger appears.

Blancanieves (D Pablo Berger, 2012)
Once she is rescued from her evil, rooster-killing stepmother (Maribel Verdú) by dwarves, a young Andalusian woman (Macarena García) becomes a bullfighter in this thrilling retelling of Snow White.

Edward Scissorhands (D Tim Burton, 1994)
A scientist (Vincent Price) builds a kindly automaton (Johnny Depp) who is adopted, then swiftly rejected, by American suburbanites.

El Sur (D Victor Erice, 1983)
Estrella (played as a Communion-age girl by Sonsoles Aranguren, and as a teenager, by Icíar Bollaín) is 15 on the night her father disappears. Slowly, spookily, she pieces together why.