Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Sicilian Ghost Story opens on an ambiguous image of a slimy, jagged surface that could be the bottom of a well, a cavern wall, or perhaps a body that’s been exposed to outside elements. This image casts a veil of dread upon the next several sequences, in which an intelligent and hearty girl, Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), follows a classmate, Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez), into woods that are rife with signifiers of doom. After Luna and Giuseppe flirt, a dog chases them, forcing Giuseppe to drop his backpack, which the animal tears to pieces. Giuseppe then whisks Luna away on his moped to a ranch, where he majestically rides a horse and kisses her for the first time. Throughout these vignettes, Grassadonia and Piazza inform landscapes and wildlife with the totemic foreboding of a fairy tale, or, more specifically, of a Guillermo del Toro film.
Considering its title, and that potentially violent opening image, the audience is primed to expect a horror film, but Sicilian Ghost Story is determinedly unclassifiable, blurring genres with a fervor that grows tedious. Giuseppe soon disappears, leaving Luna wandering the ranch. Not long afterward, Grassadonia and Piazza break away from Luna’s point of view and dispel a potentially involving mystery, revealing that Giuseppe’s been kidnapped by the local mafia, who hope to use him to force the boy’s criminal father to halt collaboration with the police. Meanwhile, Luna goes crazy with despair over her love’s vanishing, acting out at school and retreating into another del Toro-esque fantasy world that involves portals fashioned out of trees and water, as well as a subterranean dungeon that might shed light on the meaning of that opening image. Locked in a cell, Giuseppe relies on his imagination as well, and the filmmakers often suggest that the children have a supernatural link, or even that their fantasies are actually reality.
Once the nature of Giuseppe’s disappearance has been explained, the air leaks out of Sicilian Ghost Story, which has no other tricks up its sleeve. For the remainder of its running time, the film revels in the misery of two essentially trapped children, dressing up a brutal true-crime story with genre flourishes that feel increasingly beside the point. Grassadonia and Piazza want it both ways: to congratulate themselves for adhering to the bleakness of the 1980s-era story that inspired the film, while also goosing us with horror-film gimmickry that fails to reveal much of the children’s interior selves. Which is to say that Luna and Giuseppe, despite the fine performances of Jedlikowska and Fernandez, are ciphers—sacrificial lambs offered up to a chapel of vague political meaning. In one critical scene, this incoherent self-righteousness is actively offensive, as a child’s destruction is reduced to an image that inadvertently inspires one to observe, “Hmm, how pretty.”