The Macaluso Sisters
2021, NR, 89 min. Directed by Emma Dante. Starring Eleonora de Luca, Anita Pomario, Susanna Piraino, Alissa Maria Orlando, Viola Pusateri, Donatella Finocchiaro, Simona Malato, Serena Barone, Maria Rosaria Alati.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Aug. 27, 2021
The spaces we inhabit become a part of our history, and the top floor apartment on the outskirts of Palermo where the lives of five sisters unfold is a prominent character in Emma Dante’s The Macaluso Sisters.
The single location reveals the theatrical origin of the film (Dante has adapted her award-winning play), but more importantly, it becomes an accumulating reservoir of the grief and pain, of ghosts and objects that fill and disappear from the bedroom, the kitchen, the bathroom, the dovecote. They are a record of the past, relics alarmingly dense with meaning. The tragedy at the nexus of the film occurs at the end of the first act of a triptych, which spans more than 50 years in the life of these siblings.
In the mid-Eighties, the orphaned sisters, ranging in age from 7 to 20, prepare for a day at the beach, their parents’ only presence being a few old photographs. A familiar rhythm of their interactions quickly establishes their various personalities. The oldest, good-natured Maria (de Luca), yearns to be a dancer. Teenage Pinuccia (Pomario) is more interested in catching the boys’ eyes, while bookish Lia (Piraino) has the classic middle sister tendency of provocation. Pragmatic Katia (Orlando) just wants to ensure no one eats her sandwich, and young Antonella (Pusateri) is bursting with anticipation of a wonderful day of play. And this day, this day that will reverberate and alter everyone’s lives is wonderful, full of laughter and splashing, impromptu conga lines and romance.
Until. Until. Until we move forward, and the apartment is now absent of childish toys and the haphazard, careless spirit of youth. Forever marked and mutated, the sisters have each dealt with the tragedy in their own insufficient ways. Lia’s emotional instability has blossomed into mental illness, and the other sisters worry over her and each other and comfortably dance around ever tender wounds as they prepare for a dinner called by elder Katia. It is here, in this familiar space surrounded by furniture and the doves they’ve known all their lives, that the anger, the rage of the past is finally unleashed, the levy of guilt and grief broken and reduced to a pile of unrecognizable Italian pastries.
Dante returns us one last time to the apartment in the sisters’ twilight years. The camera follows Lia as she goes through a lifetime of objects, these vessels holding memories, these ghosts that read her favorite passage, these doves that have observed it all with feathery insouciance. And if The Macaluso Sisters shows a little heaviness of hand in this final act, it can be forgiven, for Dante has such a keen, compassionate eye for imbuing the physical with such an emotional depth: The marks and scars uncovered from a cabinet left in one place for a lifetime have rarely held more depth. She also has a fantastic eye for casting, as all of the actors portraying the five sisters in three different time periods are uniformly excellent.
Is there such a thing as too much pathos? Trick question, because there is not. So, should you find yourself a bit emotionally imbalanced these days, and the aggressively optimistic charms of Ted Lasso have proven to be a placebo, come see how the other half lives and seek out The Macaluso Sisters, a beautiful bummer that is the perfect elixir of Aristotelian purgation, and a restorative for your soul.