Valeria Golino has been solid, if unspectacular, in a variety of roles in such English-language films as "Hot Shots!" and "Rain Man." But she's never even hinted at the sort of acting chops she displays in the Italian drama "Respiro."
It's Golino's full-blooded, can't-take-your-eyes-off-her performance that ultimately saves the film from itself. Otherwise "Respiro" is far too deliberate, too calculated, too consciously artsy for its own good. But it's watchable because of Golino, whose performance is both a revelation and a saving grace.
The rest of this film is simply another version of what's getting to be a cliche in Italian filmmaking: a parable about a woman who both captivates and bedevils an entire village (think 2000's "Malena").
"Respiro" is loosely based on a Sicilian legend about a suicidal woman brought back to life by the prayers of her family. In this considerably less fantasy-bound version, the distraught woman is Gracia (Golino), a young mother of three who's starting to lose it.
Gracia is bored and lonely because her husband, Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), is off fishing most of the time. And even when he returns, he's usually cold and aloof. So she tries to find ways to amuse herself and her children, especially 13-year-old son Pasquale (Francesco Casisa).
Few in her village are amused by her displays of public nudity or her flagrant disregard for laws and social conventions. In fact, many are convinced she's mad and try to convince Pietro to do something about it.
Writer/director Emanuele Crialese tries to leave things as ambiguous as possible. But too often he also doesn't seem committed to the characters in general. We're unsure exactly who we're supposed to care for — the villagers, Gracia or her clearly traumatized children.
Thanks to Golino's career-best work, it's hard not to lean in her character's direction, even if she is so erratic that she becomes maddening. As Pasquale, young newcomer Casisa is very believable in his confusion. Unfortunately, as he's written, his character is also a bit of a creep.
"Respiro" is rated PG-13 for violent gunplay, as well as some violence against women and animals (overheard), scattered use of strong profanity, and brief male and female nudity. Running time: 95 minutes.