A young French girl, Jeanne, arrives in Sicily to stay at the family home of her boyfriend Giuseppe for the Easter holidays. Phoning beforehand, Giuseppe’s mother Anna is unable to tell her the terrible news that her son is dead. This fact is even kept from the audience, or at least not openly acknowledged, but it seems fairly obvious what has happened. Fairly obvious to everyone except Jeanne that is, even when she wakes one morning to find a funeral and mourners in the house. Even though Anna keeps the truth from Jeanne, the death of Giuseppe nonetheless hangs there like an ominous revelation that can’t be confronted.
The reasons for Anna maintaining this terrible deceit are difficult to grasp. It’s clear that she isn’t ready to confront the reality of her son’s death and is unable to speak of it to Jeanne, but there is more of a sense of Anna finding a way of keeping Giuseppe alive as long as Jeanne is there and believes he is alive and coming back soon. Jeanne leaves worried messages to Giuseppe’s mobile phone, suspecting that something is wrong after an incident between them the previous summer, but the messages are received only by Anna. As the days pass, with Easter approaching, Anna shows the girl around, talks a little about her own life, living the lie, putting off the truth.
Based on a play by Luigi Pirandello, La vita che ti diedi (The Life I Gave You), it’s hard to make this dramatic situation work in the more naturalistic medium of cinema, but first time director Piero Messina still manages to find the right kind of mood to reach the emotional truth of the film. Using the landscape of Sicily, the villa and its rooms, the light, with references to religion and death, the film captures the particular mood of agonising tension, the waiting (l’attessa) for acceptance of loss to sink in. It also relies very much on an actress like Juliette Binoche to carry a mother’s sense of inner turmoil and the complexity of contrasting sentiments towards death and life, for her son’s ‘survival’ and for her own.