Luna as Heroine in “Sicilian Ghost Story” by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza
When thinking of heroic figures, medieval heroes like El Cid, Roland, Orlando Furioso, or King Arthur may come to mind. Like other medieval heroes, they exhibited the most prized traits of their places and time, and were celebrated and elegized for their superior ability to combat evil as well as clear threats to their listening or reading public. Today’s heroic figures are no different than those of our ancestors. Just as medieval man recounted tales of salvific and chivalric knights, so too do today’s heroes embody and reflect the dominant values held by the public and shared through media. We easily see this in heroic figures like Superman, Batman, and others. S. Rock Blomberg, Gregory D. Hess, and Yaron Raviv interpret heroism as “heroic acts within the context of individual decision-making, public rewards, and the coordination of individual decision” (510). While heroism in film is often seen through the depiction of stereotypical personages that possess idealized qualities or traits of the society that views them, a meaningful understanding of heroism, like that described above, is first needed to fully evaluate one’s heroic qualities. While cinematic heroes often mirror ideal forms of beauty, virtue, and physical strength, it is also important to seek out those whose heroism remains understated though clear through their actions and good will. Such heroes are often unrecognized yet they are likely the most common. These incognito heroes, however, remind us all that the call to be courageous, virtuous, and live a life of service is not limited to a select few but rather a universal call made to every man but embraced by all too few.
Sicily, like the rest of the world, has no shortage of heroes or villains. Historically, chivalric tales of Orlando Furioso, who battled a Saracen warrior named Agramonte, were a common theme for Sicilian opere dei pupi, or theatrical marionette productions autochthonous to the Mediterranean island. Today the Saracens are no longer perceived as a violent threat to Sicilians but the mafia is. Beginning with the horrific assassination of Giovanni Falcone in 1992, Sicily has experienced a sharp increase in the number and variety of political, social, and media movements that laud those who combat the Cosa Nostra and restore civility, law, and order to Sicilian society. Emanuele Felice shares this sentiment when he writes that the mafia is “the principal ‘plague’ that afflicts Southern Italy” (61). As the “principal plague” afflicting Sicilians, those who confront the mafia become heroes and their anti-mafia actions are heroic. One such example of an unexpected antimafia heroine is found in the character of Luna, the protagonist of Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s 2017 film “A Sicilian Ghost Story.”
Baris Cayli notes that in Sicily today there are many social and civil movements that seek to fight the mafia and its effects on society. In his work, Cayli “illuminates the struggle of Italian civil society against the Mafia” (104) and in so doing suggests that the mafia is not only contrary to “civil society” but an active and difficult to confront antagonist to civility that structurally oppresses the Sicilian people. This atmosphere of systemic oppression is similar to the “collective anguish” from which Gustavo Gutierrez argued the marginalized of Latin America needed liberation in his groundbreaking 1973 text A Theology of Liberation. Collective anguish is also found in most of “Sicilian Ghost Story’s” personages, who are neither moved by the disappearance of the innocent, loving, and teenage Giuseppe Di Matteo nor willing to risk their own safety and wellbeing for the benefit of others. As such, they demonstrate selfishness and indifference instead of helping a young man threatened with torture and death while being detained against his will in filthy, dark, and dungeon-like cells referred to by the villains as “kennels.” The horror of Giuseppe’s detainment in such “kennels” is especially striking to viewers because these spaces are clearly inappropriate for holding living creatures of any kind due to their miserable condition.
Amidst this background of fear, general malaise, and disregard for victims of the mafia, the protagonist of Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s 2017 film “Sicilian Ghost Story” stands out for her indefatigable efforts to rescue Giuseppe. Luna is a friend of Giuseppe and they enjoyed a nascent romance before his abduction. The teenage girl is an unexpected heroine because she initially displays none of the traits that we commonly associate with heroic personages in contemporary media. Luna is neither physically strong nor especially attractive. She also does not explicitly profess any special values, virtues, or beliefs outside of her general and sincere care for Giuseppe. Instead Luna is an early teenage high school student whose naive and loving concern for Giuseppe reminds viewers of Isaiah 11:6, which famously assures faithful that in the eschaton “a little child shall lead” everyone towards God; a reminder that the young and innocent best see that which is good and just. Luna’s sincere yet perilous concern for Giuseppe’s wellbeing, discovery, and rescue is contrasted by the coarseness, stoicism, and disinterest her family, paesani, and even local police officers. She is affirmed in her righteous mission only by her best friend, Loredana, and the mourning woman believed to be Giuseppe’s mother. Furthermore, Luna’s age and marginalization makes her an “underdog” who naturally elicits sympathy and concern from viewers. Grassadonia and Piazza’s use of such an unassuming heroine is an effective tool for forcing the public to realize that if she can act heroically despite her low place in her society’s dominance hierarchy then so to can they likely act heroically, and with even greater success.
“Sicilian Ghost Story” is an artistic portrayal of the 1993 abduction of a fifteen year-old boy named Giuseppe Di Matteo who was strangled after 779 days of barbaric torture and imprisonment before being dissolved in acid by his Mafioso murderers in 1996. Di Matteo was the son of a repentant Mafioso named Santino Di Matteo who was arrested after being implicated in the assassination of the Sicilian judge Giovanni Falcone. Falcone spearheaded a legal and moral campaign to prosecute and imprison Sicilian Mafiosi who were previously untouchable by the law. This first major effort by the Italian government to end mafia terror was met by a deadly response from the Cosa Nostra to avoid prosecution or threats to their criminal way of life. In “Sicilian Ghost Story” Grassadonia and Piazza employ sympathetic sentiments regarding Falcone’s assassination to create a powerful film through the use of simple dialogue, chiaroscuro, and constant but steady camera movement that emphasizes the confusion of plot and reality. This challenges viewers to constantly decipher between concrete plot development and metaphorical happenings. The dream-like state through which the film’s narrative is often expressed remains rich in symbolism, silence, and frustrated efforts by Luna to provoke a civil response to Giuseppe’s case. Ultimately, this evokes a feeling a helplessness and frustration from the public.
Luna’s unstoppable and sometimes shocking endeavor to keep Giuseppe in the thoughts of her classmates and townsmen despite regular setbacks progressively leads the protagonist to despair and even detention due to mental illness and suicide attempts. As the drama unfolds, Luna escapes her frustrating reality and increasingly inhabits a world dominated by dreams, fantasies, and supernatural encounters wherein she discovers clues to Giuseppe’s whereabouts as well as episodes in which she reunites with him while experiencing these dream-like states. Karl Jung, building on work begun by Sigmund Freud, notes that dreams allow one to uncover their unconscious thoughts in several of his works. Just as those undergoing psychoanalysis may record their dreams to better understand themselves through the proper interpretation of dreams, so too does the viewer seek to decipher the meaning of dream-like representations of reality found in “Sicilian Ghost Story.” Regardless of what factually transpires between Luna and Giuseppe in dream-like happenings, Grassadonia and Piazza successfully use the film to show that a heroic character is not nearly as influential as easily accomplishable opportunities for heroism ignored or rejected by others. As such, the inactivity and apathy of those around Luna force the teenage girl to function in a senseless and cruel reality that shows them to be accomplices to the merciless, torturous, and murderous mafia mayhem that oppresses their very society.
In “Sicilian Ghost Story” Grassadonia and Piazza do not simply show the historical disappearance of Giuseppe Di Matteo in 1993. The filmmakers instead allow their film to emotionally engage the public and show them that they too are responsible for the wellbeing of others. Ironically, as Luna’s distress and isolation increase in each scene, her perceived heroism only grows. As Luna intrepidly challenges mafia oppression, viewers recognize that she is the contemporary version of El Cid, Roland, Orlando Furioso, or King Arthur. Although Luna cannot save the life of Giuseppe Di Matteo, the movie concludes with an encouraging scene that promises a better future. In this final scene Luna finds happiness with friends and likely a new boyfriend while seated on a beach, which clearly represents Sicily through its sun, beach, and ancient ruins. In the distance, Luna sees Giuseppe, who is only visible to her and viewers. As Giuseppe joyfully runs and dives into the turf it becomes clear that although he died tragically and unjustly, Luna and others like her are progressively forging a world in which persistence, truth, and disinterested love strengthen. This makes Luna a heroine in her time and place. The film’s harmonious conclusion allows viewers to recognize that heroism is not simply about good outcomes, as is often the case in Western depictions of heroism from the medieval period until today. Rather Luna is a heroine because she achieves that which modern man most seeks; to rest peacefully in the knowledge that one has acted virtuously and courageously in all ways possible for the greater good of others. Having fought against corruption and criminality bravely, Luna can now find peace in a world that she worked to better, just like Santino Di Matteo whose confession and testimony tragically led to his son’s murder but also sparked antimafia movements that continue today. Luna’s painful wayfaring for justice is therefore a trope to which everyone can relate in their own way. Her brave and admirable expression of this highly coveted and peregrine trait shows precisely how courageous, just, loving, and heroic she truly is.
Alan G. Hartman
Cayli, Baris. “Resistance against the Mafia: A Civic Struggle to Defy an Uncontestable Power.”
Anthropological Journal of European Cultures. 21:2 (2012), 103-125.
Felice, Emanuele. Perchè il sud è rimasto in dietro. Società editrice il Mulino, 2013.
S. Brock Blomberg, Gregory D. Hess and Yaron Raviv. “Where Have All the Heroes Gone? A
Rational-Choice Perspective on Heroism.” Public Choice , Dec., 2009, Vol. 141, No. 3/4 (Dec., 2009), 509-522.
 This is the my translation. The original quote is “la principale <<piaga>> che affligge il Mezzogiorno” (Felice 61).
Dr. Alan G. Hartman is The Program Director of Modern Foreign Languages at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY. He holds a B.S. in Psychology and Spanish from Manhattan College, a M.A. in Hispanic Studies from Boston College, a M.A. in Italian Studies from Middlebury College, a M.A. in Theology from The University of Scranton, and a Doctor of Modern Language from Middlebury College. His areas of specialty include Modern Italian Literature, The Fascist Period, Southern Italian Literature, Italian American Literature, contemporary Latin American fiction, Movements of Social Justice, and Contemplation Studies.