This simple premise is literally more than enough to sustain Respiro, Emanuele Crialese's slice-of-life-turned-allegory about Grazia, Pietro and their three children: a teen-age daughter, who's just discovered boys in the form of a shy local police officer; a younger son who's begun to assume his culture's commandeering machismo; and an older son, Pasquale, who's closer to his mother, and who protects her when she finally runs away rather than submit to community standards.
The women of Lampedusa work in fish-packing plants, and during the day their adolescent sons turn semi-feral in gangs that climb the town's seaside cliffs. They hunt small birds, cook them over a campfire, and when three unaligned boys happen by, the ruffians strip them naked and painfully tweak their blossoming manhoods. At home, with the family, life is just as physical: Kids wrestle with mom, and everyone wrestles together (sometimes affectionately, sometimes as discipline), although when Grazia (Valeria Golino) makes a spectacle of herself swimming topless, even Pasquale begs her to cover up. Later, when her husband tries to inhibit her freedom, she dances around with a fishnet over her head, mocking her own captivity.
This slice of life could have carried an entire movie, albeit perhaps a slight one. It's certainly hard for us to imagine a Western culture so quaint and patriarchal, which is not to say abusive (Pietro tries very hard to help Grazia get over her illness), and in scene after scene, largely without judgment, Respiro (which means "breath") lets us glimpse a world of jagged beauty and basic instincts. Lampedusa is somewhat tattered, and littered with crumbling buildings and junk heaps where the children play. The sparkling lagoons in hidden caverns are so blue and unspoiled that the colors almost seem otherworldly.
Only in imagining Grazia's illness does Crialese begin to lard things up with metaphor, and his disappointing denouement pays homage to a local myth about an unstable woman revivified by the sea.
The most appealing and consistent element of Respiro is its tactile eroticism. Pasquale flirts with a local girl by asking her to draw a seagull on his emerging young chest (he tries to steal a kiss as she draws), and when the boys in the village play, they play rough, although apparently, unlike teen-age boys in French and Spanish movies, they don't indulge in circle jerks. They're all waiting to become their fathers, and so it's disturbing to see Pasquale's little brother, with his uncharacteristic sandy hair and dark blue eyes, begin to adopt the ozymandian posture of his destiny. In Italian, with subtitles.