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The Great Train Robbery

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" The Heavenly Father’s really given you a gift for science! "
— Trey Parker, Orgazmo

MRQE Top Critic

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The tiny island of Lampedusa, a speck in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, east of Tunisia and south of Italy, is not picturesque. Its landscape has been made ugly with the cement foundations of unfinished houses lying dormant along the rocky, rugged terrain.

Lacking in many modern conveniences, there are also no hospitals on Lampedusa. Receiving medical attention requires a flight to Palermo, a few hundred miles north of the island.

Valeria Golino, an Italian actress who has co-starred with the likes of Tom Cruise and Gary Oldman, spent three months on this unlikely and unglamorous location working on her latest film, Respiro.

It’s a small gem of a movie now making its way into U.S. theaters and, even though Golino loves to travel, the rigors of the press circuit that has brought her from Paris to San Francisco to Los Angeles and now Denver has worn her down a bit.

But only a bit.

Strolling into the Hotel Monaco in blue jeans, black top and leather jacket, the curly-haired and raspy-voiced Golino is quick to apologize for her sluggishness, but once she starts talking about Respiro, she finds a new source of energy and shows herself to be a very engaging, extremely polite lady who happens to work in the movies for a living.

Landscapes and Legends

 Travel-weary Golino energizes for Respiro
Travel-weary Golino energizes for Respiro
 

While the location of her latest movie might not be postcard perfect, the island’s parched landscape does work its charm. “It’s not cute. Actually it’s rough,” Golino relates, “but after a while it’s gorgeous.”

The unexpectedly seductive setting by the sea had its natural attractions for Golino and the rest of the cast. “We went swimming a lot; it was impossible not to. It was just like a siren calling you to the sea,” Golino recalls. “It’s amazing.”

Truth be told, the island is more modern than the film might lead audiences to believe. Lampedusa is an odd mix of unorganized rural life with technology drowning the inhabitants in new ways of living, particularly the omnipresent cell phone.

The film’s director, Emanuele Crialese, didn’t want televisions and the beep-beep-beep of video games and cell phones disrupting the movie. He wanted to create a sense of suspended time, but not necessarily the past.

Part of that timelessness can be attributed to the Lampedusa legends which form the basis of the film’s story. Local legends tell of a woman shunned by the small community because she behaved outside the norms. The town eventually regrets its treatment of her, but only after finding her clothes on the beach and believing they drove her to suicide. Legend has it that their prayers brought her back so she could return to a normal life with her family.

But to say more about Respiro’s story line would give away one of the neatest endings to a movie in quite some time.

A Complicated Character

In portraying Grazia, Golino shied away from all the stories and legends so she could keep the character more natural and avoid the baggage of any legendary aura.

That approach proved successful. Even though Golino has no children of her own, her rapport with her onscreen children is thoroughly convincing and tender. Grazia is a loving mother of three whose unpredictable and impulsive behavior swings from playful and innocent to reckless and tormented. Rejected by the community, she runs away, with the help of her older son.

Grazia is a complicated character and how she is described depends on the point of view of the observer. The community sees her as crazy and her family wants to send her to Milan for treatment.

Of Grazia’s character, Golino contends that “she’s at ease with nature; she’s very much in her element with water, the rocks, the sun, with her children.”

However, Golino sees Grazia as a woman who suffers from a slight chemical imbalance. “She’s not a rebel,” Golino says. “She’s actually, I think, a very docile person. She just wants to be left alone, unless she’s provoked.

“If she lived in a big city, she’d be called a manic depressive,” Golino suggests, but not in Lampedusa. “We wanted to give mystery to her character that’s going to make you wonder what she is. Is it like an existential state of wonder and enchantment, and at the same time incapability and lack of practical social skills?”

Even though Grazia lashes out when taunted by the people and events surrounding her, Golino does not see her as a rabble rouser. “She doesn’t want to shake things up,” Golino says, “I don’t think she has an ideology behind her actions.”

International Film Career

When asked if a movie like Respiro could be made in Hollywood, Golino quickly replies, “No. It could not. Definitely. The same way we could not make The Matrix.

“In Hollywood, she would’ve been a manic depressive and they would have put her on Prozac,” Golino remarks. And, in true Hollywood-happy-ending style, “she would come back a better person,” she jokes.

With a film career split between the United States and Italy, Golino likes both the big Hollywood movies and the small independent films.

Her first major role in the U.S. was in Big Top Pee-Wee in 1988, which she followed up later that year by appearing opposite Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

Her choices aren’t always obvious. Golino likes both the bigger Hollywood movies as well as the independent films. After Rain Man, she went on to star in the Hot Shots! movies with Charlie Sheen. Then she followed up work in Immortal Beloved (with Gary Oldman) and Leaving Las Vegas (with Nicolas Cage) with a string of Italian productions. Most recently, she co-starred in Frida with Salma Hayek.

A Common Thread

All told, she’s appeared in 47 movies plus a TV mini-series so far. At age 36, she comes across as totally unaffected by the success of her career and she carries none of the egotistical baggage of a stereotypical “movie star.”

The common denominator in her attraction to the roles she’s taken is the filmmaking process itself, particularly the talent and the ideas involved in the story. Golino explains, “I just care to work with people that I’d like to spend a couple of months with and won’t get bored and listen to what they have to say.”

Sometimes you get paid more than others, sometimes the food is better on the set than others. But those are secondary considerations for Golino. She likes all of it.

In the case of Respiro, “I was just alone in the middle of the chaos,” Golino says. “It was chaos. You have no idea!”

New Kids on the Block

The chaos stemmed from the fact that Golino was the only professional actress in the cast. The rest of the cast pursue other professions and for most, many of them Lampedusa residents, it was their first time acting.

For example, Vincenzo Amato, who plays Grazia’s husband, is a sculptor by trade and Grazia’s mother in law is Amato’s real life mother. “It’s a very neorealistic concept that way,” Golino observes.

Compensating for the cast’s lack of experience, making Respiro entailed a full month of rehearsals then two months of filming. “It’s a luxury that you get when you’re in a place that doesn’t cost much,” Golino says of the extra prep time. “That’s the freedom that you get when you make movies for no money.”

Golino enjoyed her time with the Respiro cast and their social calendar included, in addition to all the swimming, fishing, eating at the houses of various relatives of the cast, talking about the movie, and sometimes even fighting about the movie.

Through it all, Golino had fun on the island, including working with the young cast who played her children (Lampedusa natives Francesco Casisa, Veronica D’Agostino, and Filippo Pucillo). She concedes she doesn’t like all children, but the Respiro children were a treat.

Next Stop…

While away from the movie set, Golino enjoys travel, photography, reading, and going to the movies. “You know, normal things,” she says, in her own down-to-earth fashion.

Golino likes traveling outside of work, “just for going,” and would like to travel to Jordan and Vietnam at some point, but with either political instability or SARS and other dangers afoot, she’s thinking Australia might well be her next big trip.

Besides, Respiro is going “down under” soon. “This movie just won’t let me go,” she says in a mockingly exacerbated tone. “I’m constantly talking about this movie!”

“It’s like a little train, it’s going everywhere!” Golino says of the little film that could (and has) achieved success primarily by word of mouth and without the advantage of a large marketing budget.