A Haunting Crime: Piazza and Grassadonia's 'Sicilian Ghost Story' recalls a notorious kidnapping

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Antonio Piazza was a Palermo-based journalist and Fabio Grassadonia an author and college professor when the two men met at a screenwriting workshop in Turin, Italy. Both were seeking a career change. After collaborating on a project at the workshop, their instructor, an established veteran, invited them to join him in Rome. The duo worked in Italian television for a while, and in 2013 made their impressive debut as writer-directors on Salvo, about a Mafia hitman who has a crisis of conscience when he is ordered to kill a blind woman. The filmmakers were in New York City in June when their latest film, Sicilian Ghost Story (opening Nov. 30 from Strand Releasing), screened at “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.”

The movie is a fictionalization of a horrific crime that was headline news in Italy for two years—the 1992 kidnaping of an adolescent boy, Giuseppe Di Matteo, the eldest son of Mafia turncoat Santino Di Matteo. “Even though 20 years have passed, many people are uncomfortable with our story,” Piazza said in an interview at The Film Society of Lincoln Center. Giuseppe was held for 779 days. He was moved periodically to different villages in Sicily before he was murdered, but rather than a straightforward crime drama, Sicilian Ghost Story imagines his imprisonment from the point-of-view of Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), the girl who loves him. “The killing of Giuseppe and especially the circumstances of his imprisonment, and the fact that they got rid of his body by melting it in acid, was a shock for the Italian public,” Grassadonia explains.

As Sicilians, Piazza and Grassadonia vividly recall the events that led to Giuseppe’s death. In 1992, two anti-Mafia judges, also Sicilian-born, Giovanni Falcone and his successor Paolo Borsellini, were killed in car bombings. Their murders were ordered by Mafia crime boss Totó Riina, and were planned and executed by Santino Di Matteo, Giuseppe’s father, and Giovanni Brusca, among others. (In Italy, “Mafia” refers only to the Sicilian crime families.) In June 1993, Di Matteo was arrested and charged in Falcone’s death. He began collaborating with authorities, and in November of that year Riina ordered Giuseppe’s kidnaping in the hope that it would stop Di Matteo from testifying as a government witness.“Santino’s family did not denounce him because his father was a longstanding, traditional Mafia guy,” Piazza explains. “He wanted to solve the seizure of his grandson without interference from the police, and that was obviously a tragic mistake.”

Grassadonia and Piazza are disturbed by the media’s ennobling and unrealistic depictions of the Mafia and other crime families—for instance, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta. “This is a very important issue for us, first because we are Sicilian,” Piazza says. “When we started directing movies, when we made Salvo, we had to go back to that environment and revisit our perception of it. In Italian fiction and TV, the danger is that the Mafia is romanticized.” Piazza explains that masterpieces like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather complicated matters. “Did you know they play The Godfather theme at soccer games in Palermo? Obviously, we are not putting the blame on Coppola because there are so many other films that continue this romanticization, but it is true that The Godfather gave the Mafia a foundation, an idea of themselves.”

Sicilian Ghost Story, shot on location in Sicily’s Nebrodi Park, begins in the forest that characterizes that natural area. “It’s a totally different landscape than the one where Giuseppe was kept, but we were looking for a place that you might find in a fairytale,” Grassadonia explains. “This natural world is the place where Luna and Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) start their love story. It protects the secret of their love against the human world, the world of the village and their school.” Although the filmmakers set out to make a favola or fable, the movie also depicts the actual conditions under which Giuseppe was held. “We meet a lot of animals in this fairytale and they are not dangerous,” Grassadonia observes. “The only dangerous one is the dog. It is not connected with nature, but more with human beings. When the dog enters the story, it is a foreshadowing.” The dog threatens Luna in the movie’s initial sequence.

The fairytale aspect of the film is in sharp contrast to the “real” world in which Luna copes with the apathy of her classmates, and that of her parents, to Giuseppe’s disappearance. “The fairytale allows us to show the ignominy or the disgrace of this society, this wasteland we built in Sicily,” Grassadonia says. The Mafia in Sicilian Ghost Story consists of shadowy figures, the jailers cruel but barely differentiated. Throughout the film, Giuseppe clings to his memories of Luna, re-reading a letter she gave him before he was kidnapped. “We are telling a Romeo and Juliet story, too, a story where love is so strong as to fight back against the evil Mafia,” Piazza explains. “While others close their eyes, Luna opens hers at the risk of her own life, but this is what life is about. It is to preserve our dignity as human beings.”

Asked if the latter may be understood as the moral for their fable, Piazza replies: “Yes, it is a resistance against brutality. There is something deeply human that cannot be destroyed even by the most terrible crimes.” In the small villages where Giuseppe was imprisoned, his bunker was constructed beforehand, and it is impossible to imagine that townspeople did not surmise the intended use of the structure. Some members of the Italian police also undoubtedly knew his whereabouts. “This film reflects our experience in our years as kids growing up in Sicily,” Grassadonia says. “Giuseppe’s story is a complicated one, and after the shock of the truth, it was abandoned, and people tried to forget, but there is guilt on many different levels in the entire Sicilian society.” The film’s talented stars and other young actors who play Luna’s classmates, all of whom make their screen debuts, are Sicilians, albeit too young to have been alive when Giuseppe was killed.

While American audiences may not be familiar with the real events that inspired Sicilian Ghost Story, the film’s portrayal of its Mafia characters, and the Mafia itself as a brutal force, is significant for its uniquely Italian perspective. “The Mafia’s family structure is a deception,” Piazza says. “For everyone who looked the other way then, when Giuseppe was kidnaped, and are fearful now and say nothing, these are the actions that erode a society.” When asked if they are in danger of reprisals, Piazza replies: “No, we don’t think so, because the Mafia is under attack in Sicily. They suffered from their fame. Also, they are invested in legitimate businesses now. Killing us would bring unwanted attention, and it would disrupt business.”