By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/1/21 – Opening this Friday at several Laemelle Theatres in Los Angeles is Emma Dante’s The Macaluso Sisters (Le sorelle Macaluso, Italy, 2020), a deeply moving tale involving three generations of actors portraying five sisters from the beginning to the end of their lives. The film played at the Venice Film Festival 2020 and is based on her 2014 play of the same name. Emma Dante is a well-known Italian playwright whose sense of dramaturgy allows her to stage this story in a fine three-act drama, most of which is staged in the apartment in Palermo, Sicily, which forms the nexus of their lives. This is Dante’s second feature film, the first being A Street in Palermo (2014), about a street-stand-off between two female drivers stuck in a narrow street. The Macaluso Sisters starts out as a joyous tribe of rambunctious girls, ranging in age for 5 to 19, who were orphaned for some unexplained reasons and survive in their family apartment by raising doves in the rooftop annex and renting them out for weddings and celebrations. Like the sisters in the story, they always seem to return to their home to roost. Dante’s sensitive screenplay and her fine army of actresses (12 in total, playing the 5 characters between them) truly carry this story about time, memory, and death.
The first act has the five sisters preparing for a day at Mondello beach in Palermo. The eldest is Maria (Eleonora De Luca), a responsible young woman who dreams of being a dancer and, as we discover, has an interest in a young woman who works in an open-air cinema. Pinuccia (Anita Pomario), a few years younger in age, is the pretty, vain, flirty one who wonders if the boys are looking at her. Pinuccia seemed to have a difficult time with the truculent Lia (Susanna Piraino), an aggressive youngster who loves books and can only be calmed when Maria, the eldest, reads aloud to her. Next in line is the plump Katia (Alissa Maria Orlando), who generally goes along with whatever the others suggest. Finally there is Antonella (Viola Pusateri), a five-year-old who is so sweet and discerning, but sophisticated for her age. As Emma Dante points out, their large top-floor apartment in Palermo is also a character in the film – and the camera spends as much time observing the rooms of the shabby apartment as it does in studying the five sisters. The crux of the film occurs at the end of the first act, with the trip to the beach that begins joyously but ends in tragedy with an accidental death.
The second act opens in mid-life for the four sisters who remain after the tragedy. During a dinner in the same apartment, Maria (Simona Malato), now in her 40s, makes a shocking announcement about herself that shapes the remainder of the film. Pinuccia (Donatella Finocchiaro) is still as vain as always and had a history of male lovers while still living with her sisters. Katia (Laura Giodani) has married and moved out but comes to visit, pressing the others to sell the apartment because she and her husband need money. Meanwhile the truculent Lia has become increasingly difficult, fighting even more with her sister Pinuccia and can only be pacified by Maria’s reading to her. It is interesting that Emma Dante managed to find physical look-alikes when casting the same role at different ages.
The third act unfolds effortlessly, as there are only three women left in old age and the health of Lia is failing. Lia (Maria Rosaria Alati) is living in the apartment alone. The apartment is falling apart and Lia begins to box up all the books and memories of childhood she once treasured and stored in the rooftop annex with the doves. In a scene that echoes Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie, she tries to grapple with her sense of guilt for what happened to her younger sister Antonella. Lia’s death will leave Pinuccia (Ileana Pompario) and Katia (Rosalba Bolognalia) to sell the apartment finally, and have all the furnishings removed. A cloud of melancholy sits over the final scenes, as the apartment is stripped bare and the familiar rooms empty of human context. That melancholy seems omnipresent in the film, as we often hear Eric Satie’s plaintive Gymnopédie No. 1 as the motif of the apartment itself.
Emma Dante is first and foremost a playwright and The Sisters Macaluso was originally written as a stage play. She sees the five sisters as having deeply symbolic resonance: Maria, the eldest, is the brain, the decision maker. The second-born Pinuccia, the pretty one, is skin and represents sensuality and sex. Lia, who is guided by instinct and passion, represents the heart, often acting impulsively. Katia, who is chubby and always eating, seems to symbolize the stomach. Finally, Antonella is the baby of the family and represents the lungs and the breath which give air to the whole story and never seems to fade away. And then there is the house itself as a character that goes through the story, years, and generations – sharing the joy and pain of these sisters, as it seems to watch them silently, denying any judgment.