Review: ‘The Macaluso Sisters’ paints the slow passage of grief

The first sense we get of the Macaluso sisters is that they’re trying to escape. The film opens with loud scraping sounds and jostling bodies in the darkness, and then someone successfully stabs a hole through the wall and bright sunlight burns through, the noise of crashing waves on the other side. Are they somehow imprisoned, a la Mustang (2015) or The Virgin Suicides (1999)? Descriptions of The Macaluso Sisters call to mind these films, invoking sudden tragedy and consequences. But unlike these other movies about five young sisters of varying ages, there’s no parental oppression here. In fact, there are no parents at all. Their absence not only destabilises expectations, it contributes to the feeling that the sisters exist separately from the rest of the world, in ways both believable and not.

The Sicilian Macaluso sisters include: the youngest, Antonella (tiny, adorable); middle children, Katia (reserved, content) and Lia (temperamental, erratic); and adult or almost-adult, Pinuccia (glamorous, vain) and Maria (practical, caring). They live in a large apartment crowded with mementos, which the camera lovingly captures in repeated static shots, drinking in the details: photographs, scattered belongings, nestled dishes stored inside the oven. Then there’s their roommates – a flock of doves, which the sisters keep in an aviary because their family business apparently involves releasing clouds of doves at weddings. We see plenty of doves, stalking empty rooms and being chased out of inhabited ones, but we never see the girls at work. We don’t see a lot of things in this film.

The Macaluso Sisters – based on a play by the film’s director and co-writer, Emma Dante – sets the ambitious task of conveying the full, rich lives of multiple women by showing three days, decades apart. The first day, when the girls are at the ages described above, involves a trip to the beach under bright, sunny skies. A simple, startling accident leads to one sister’s death, and instead of dwelling on any of the immediate aftermath, the film skips forward several decades, to when the surviving sisters are clustered around their 40s. When they all gather for dinner at the family home, it’s clear their childhood trauma floats just under the surface; in no time, emotions spill over and violence breaks out. One sister makes a dramatic announcement, and again the film skips forward, denying us a glimpse of the others’ reactions. Part three, the briefest, does little more than show who is still alive in their 80s and what the house looks like.

If this sounds slight, well, it is. The film might be thematically heavy – all joy is leached from the film after the childhood death – but its structure is balsa wood-light, with the richly detailed production design of the apartment and the actresses’ performances the only things tethering it to the ground. The casting is quite amazing; each actress seems to bleed into her older and/or younger counterparts, through a mixture of mannerism and slightly-similar looks, conveying exactly which sister they are without speaking. Granted, their personalities are written in rather broad brush-strokes – Pinuccia stays vain, Lia remains temperamental, no one really evolves as they get older – but this is somewhat a necessity given the short running time and abrupt time-jumps. The dialogue can only do so much, so it’s the details in the performances that tell you what effects time has wrought on each sister. Each actress, particularly in part two, masterfully uses voice and gaze to not just convey what they are feeling, but to link themselves to their past and future versions.

But if repetition is the film’s strength, it’s also its weakness. Part three of the film doesn’t offer much apart from repeating the motifs of the first two – here’s the apartment, the ocean, the doves. The motifs extend to the soundtrack, with Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 played seemingly every fifteen minutes, which grows rather tiresome. The Macaluso Sisters feels trapped by its origins as a stage play and the ‘rules’ of its structure, repeating itself in a confined space. By focusing tightly on the sisters (other characters barely get any screen time) and emphasising the repetition of their lives over decades, the film conveys the sisters stuck in their grief, bound by a connection both intimate and antagonistic. But the film’s enclosed atmosphere, its insistence on showing so little, also raises incessant questions that force viewers to suspend their disbelief  – how do the sisters survive financially from releasing doves at weddings? Why did they put a hole in the wall in the opening scene? Perhaps most mysteriously, in a film all about family bonds, is the complete absence of the parents. Are they dead? Why does no one speak of them? Are there no other family members who are concerned about these girls, most of whom are young children, living by themselves and running an avian business?

The Macaluso Sisters offers a sketch of childhood death and the toll it takes on the survivors – a lush, richly textured sketch, but a sketch nonetheless. Through its structure, it withholds the emotional reactions we want to see and instead leaps forward by decades. It only shows the ripples, not the impact. This is a distinctive way of telling a story, and the various actresses certainly rise to the challenge. But their performances aren’t enough to fill out a film that’s just too thin – by sacrificing impact, the film sands down its narrative’s sharp edges, becoming less compelling than it could have been.

The Macaluso Sisters is screening on MIFF Play as part of the 2021 Melbourne International Film Festival.

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Zoë Almeida Goodall is a film critic, editor and researcher based in Melbourne.

Zoë Almeida Goodall

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