Movie Review: Alone With Her Dreams (2020)

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Warning his friend not to put so much stock into his dreams for the future that he loses sight of reality, in “The Shawshank Redemption,” Red (Morgan Freeman) tells Andy (Tim Robbins) that “hope is” not only “a dangerous thing,” but it can also “drive a man insane.”

Of course, for that to happen, you'd have to view hope as a good thing, which is the opposite relationship that eleven-year-old Lucia (Marta Castiglia) has with the feeling in director Paolo Licata's “Alone With Her Dreams.” Knowing of hope's pitfalls, she explains that “when a person 'hopes' to do something, they never end up doing it,” which is a lesson that her grandmother Maria (Lucia Sardo) takes to heart, quoting Lucia's words back to her in the Italian film's final act.

Applying this logic to her parents' sudden qualification that they, along with her younger brother, “hope” they can return home for Christmas after so many conversations where it'd previously been a certainty, Lucia sees the writing on the wall when she hears her least favorite word on the phone. Saying that she wishes she hadn't talked to them so she could've gone on assuming they'd come back for the holidays, Lucia begins feeling lonelier than ever, living with the stubbornly defiant Maria in her tiny hometown on the coast of Sicily, after the rest of her family fled to France to make a better living.

Caught in the middle of a family feud that goes back to her grandmother's generation – as the stern woman has forbidden Lucia from having anything to do with Maria's sister Pina (Ileana Rigano) or Pina's daughter Rosamaria (Katia Greco) – as Lucia waits to join her family in France, she struggles to find out just what led to their rift. Realizing that the truth of the situation is much darker than the gossip she's been led to believe, soon history repeats itself in a cruel twist of fate as the tragedy of the women's past threatens to envelop Lucia as well.

A sun-drenched coming-of-age saga, based upon the novel by Catena Fiorello and adapted for the screen by Licata, Fiorello, and Ugo Chiti, this languidly paced, atmospheric film takes a good thirty minutes to immerse you in its near desolate Sicilian environment. With its one store that, for a fee, will let you use a phone (which is then lowered out of the window by a rope basket) and its statue of the Virgin Mary that residents donate to in order to ask God for wishes, in this town, we feel as though we've wandered into a whole other world.

Centered on a sparsely populated seaside community where nearly everyone knows everyone else or, as in Lucia's case, is related to several other residents, “Alone With Her Dreams” seems to be set in the 1960s or '70s. Timeless, foreign, and remote, the town we find ourselves in is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Rome, made popular by some of the biggest Italian cinema exports from the era.

Yet as “Alone With Her Dreams” begins to incorporate themes of how abuse, trauma, and shame are passed down from one generation to the next under the guise of secrets and lies, it morphs into an incredibly timely work. Additionally, it's one you just might find that you want to discuss with the women in your family tree as soon as it ends. 

Described as a “shocking... new Italian classic from the heart,” by director Oliver Stone, the film is now available on-demand from Corinth Films after a successful, award-winning, festival run. Requiring patience in viewers used to having most things spelled out for them in the first ten minutes of a movie, “Alone With Her Dreams” uses a natural approach that's more indicative of classic Italian neorealist filmmaking.

Eschewing the building blocks of most coming-of-age fare, while initially, I wasn't sure what to make of it, the film grows both more compelling and more universally relatable with each successive scene. Reminiscent of the way that the family sagas helmed by Taiwanese New Wave filmmakers preferred to let their characters live and breathe rather than try to manufacture a protracted plot out of thin air, while Licata's “Alone With Her Dreams” isn't for every filmgoer, those who stay with it will find it's a hard movie to shake.

Potent and wonderfully acted, to Licata's credit, this ensemble drama is brought vividly to life with more color and verve than we typically see in Sicilian set features, which are far too often painted purely in the shades of sun and sand. Likewise, it's a rare, vital, feminist effort about what it means to be a girl growing up in an oppressive Catholic culture where there's much more going on beneath the surface than women are traditionally allowed to discuss. 

An unusual and affecting film, in “Alone With Her Dreams,” Lucia and her Sicilian female relatives learn that, rather than hope for a spiritual intervention or the help of a man, sometimes it's better just to take care of things themselves... in whatever way they see fit. 

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