An almost unbearable sadness settles like the sunset on this beautifully composed tale of how a tragic accident in childhood poisons four adult lives; people who grow old while remaining frozen in a single, stricken instant like cursed souls in a fairytale. The movie has a streak of sentimentality amid its melancholy and a certain formal theatricality: director Emma Dante has adapted the movie from her own stage play, but has opened it out very plausibly and cinematically.
The setting is, initially, the 1980s or thereabouts, and the five Macaluso sisters, Maria, Lia, Pinuccia, Katia and Antonella – ranging from eight or nine to late teens – live in a tatty top-floor apartment on the outskirts of Palermo. Their parents are dead; they look after themselves and have inherited their mum and dad’s business renting out doves (which they occasionally paint festive colours) for weddings and birthdays. One afternoon, they take off to a beach resort, the “Charleston”, attached to a grand restaurant, and while one sneaks off for a rendezvous with a girl she’s in love with, the other four go swimming out by a dangerous part of the pier structure behind the main restaurant building – with awful results.
That hot sunny day of calamity governs the rest of their lives; the film effectively telescopes the succeeding five decades of their existence into an hour and a half (actors of different ages are cast for the different stages). They are emotionally paralysed, unable to make sense of the world. Some have relationships, some not, but they are all imprisoned in a way in that heartbreaking apartment. The extended scene when it is sold off and the removals men come to take away all the pictures and furniture is a marvel.
These sisters are not quite like those in Chekhov; they are never yearning for anything as specific as Moscow (although one yearns to be a dancer) and they do not think of themselves as exiled from any existence that is rightfully theirs. But the tragedy creates a new and terrible aspiration: they want to go back, to before the disaster, to when the vague, listless wanting wasn’t the luxury they now understand it to be. It is a touching story, expertly told.
• Released on 18 December in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.