“Alone with her Dreams” – Looking up [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“Alone with her Dreams,’ is a beautiful, melancholic film by first time director Paolo Licata. Based on the novel Picciridda – Con I Piedi Nella Sabbia (The Little One – With her Feet in the Sand) by Catena Fiorello, it is a story of longing, sadness, hope, desperation, violence, and beauty. The screenplay, written by Ugo Chiti, Fiorello, and Licata, centers on the story of Lucia who has been abandoned to the care of her unsentimental, seemingly unloving, and controlling grandmother.
This is Sicily in the late 1960s, beautiful, forbidding, unforgiving and stuck in a backwards era rife with poverty, misguided machismo, and filled with secrets and decades-old grudges. Unemployment is the norm and Lucia’s parents, along with her younger brother, have left for France to find jobs and a better life. They promise, or rather “hope” to come back at Christmas to see Lucia. They need her to stay with her father’s mother so that she can go to middle school. But “hope,” her grandmother Nonna Maria tells her, is an empty promise, easily broken. And of course it is.
Lucia, a solitary creature, careens between awkward and beautiful, smart and dull, obedient and rebellious. She is typical of her age, eleven when the story begins, but living in a society adhering to the rigid norms of a much earlier era. Progress has not yet found a place in this Sicily of the black-garbed, severe, judgmental ladies who control the town but are suppressed by the men who rule over them.
Lucia’s grandmother is a force to be reckoned with. Called the General behind her back, Nonna Maria has lived here all her life and expects to die her. Although both of her sisters live close by, she has not spoken to one of them, Pina, for almost 50 years and she expects Lucia to follow her lead without question.
We shadow Lucia at school as she makes a close friend, in the sand dunes and caves where she spies illicit activities, in town at the only available phone where she waits for the infrequent calls from her mother. Licata is sly in his depiction of Lucia. Her story is compelling and moves lyrically even when filled with sadness, but it is Nonna Maria who is the actual engine of this film. A professional widow with an expression of permanent disdain, there is hidden depth that she conceals from everyone. Clearly, this is a woman who has withstood enormous blows and incredible pain but has not allowed either to rule her. Her brutal and seemingly loveless attitude towards Lucia is a façade, one that will be revealed to huge effect towards the end. Nonna Maria has lived her entire life in a petty, unforgiving village that holds no future for anyone, let alone a smart, sensitive young girl like Lucia. Nonna Maria uses her coldness as a shield both for herself and for her granddaughter. As much as Lucia resents her grandmother, the strength she will have learned at the end of a slap or cruel remark will serve her well in surviving what is in store for her.
“Alone with her Dreams” has much in common with the HBO series “My Brilliant Friend.” The societal attitudes, the village prejudices, the lack of opportunity especially for women, even the disdain for education are all present in both works which are based on popular, contemporary books.
The cinematography by Lorenzo Adorisio is sumptuous with saturated colors that intensify the beauty of the Sicilian countryside and coastal scenery. Licata, the director, makes the episodic film flow seamlessly, aided enormously by the writers.
As is almost always the case, it is the perfect casting that gives this coming-of-age story its polish. Marta Castiglia, in her first film, as the young Lucia is a marvel. So often wordless, as much observer as generator of the action, she is mesmerizing. Ileana Rigano as Pina, the estranged sister, exudes the warmth and perplexity of someone who is emotionally confused about her sister’s perpetual anger. Rigano’s warm-hearted portrayal of alienation allows her character enormous depth by the end.
But it is the brilliant Lucia Sardo as Nonna Maria who drives this film. The anger and focus of her character give “Alone with her Dreams” the force and depth that distinguishes it from other so-called coming-of-age movies because it is actually about how Nonna Maria frames the future for her granddaughter. Sardo is able to portray fury, small-minded hatefulness, and bone-crushing humiliation with a single glance. Essentially unknown outside of Italy, Sardo is a star, a truly great actress who has been relegated to supporting roles over a very long career. Licato has rectified that with this film.
In Italian with English subtitles.
Do yourself a favor, read the subtitles and see the film. It will affect you for quite some time.
Opening Friday October 30 at the Laemmle Virtual Theatres