“No” is the first word of director Emma Dante’s The Macaluso Sisters. Starting this film with “No,” the negative, the denial, the rejection, feels appropriate for a family saga following the lives of the Macaluso sisters through determination, tragedy, accident, illness, grief, and despair. In the film, five orphaned sisters, who rent doves for a living, deal with grief and the ramifications of the youngest sister’s death during a childhood adventure at the beach. Set in roughly contemporary Palermo, Sicily, the film follows the sisters—some of whom are played by multiple actresses—over the course of their lives. The Macaluso Sisters was released in American theatres this August and was a 2020 Venice International Film Festival Official Selection.
The sisters’ doves could be read as symbols of liberation, until one sister asks, “When will you set them free, Mr. Cangelosi?” He replies, “After the ceremony, as usual. They know their way home, they’ll be back by tonight.” Though the sisters and their deceased parents’ home are pretty much the only characters in the film, there is a sense of outside forces working to hold them back.
Lingering shots of interior rooms, of landscapes overshadowed by decaying apartment buildings, of a beach hemmed in by walls and dilapidated structures, all work towards a sense of confinement. Even the repeating shot of the swooping and circular motions of the doves kept by the Macaluso sisters emphasizes this stuckness.
In The Macaluso Sisters, character development attempts to push against this confinement. Each sister seems forced into a detrimental stereotype or is stigmatized, yet they are each carefully crafted to work against the stigma of their assigned roles. The eldest sisters, Maria (Eleonora de Luca, Simona Malato) and Pinuccia (Anita Pomario, Donatella Finocchiaro, Ileana Rigano), juxtapose each other. Pinuccia is known as the flirtatious one, often ridiculed for her promiscuity, while Maria is portrayed as more sensible. Lia (Susanna Piraino, Serena Barone, Maria Rosaria Alati) is called crazy. With so many sisters to track, they become known by their identifier, for better or worse. Katia (Alissa Maria Orlando, Laura Giordani, Rosalba Bologna) is overweight, and Dante sees her as the stomach of the family. Such identifiers limit character development.
Interestingly, Dante interprets the sisters as the brain, skin, heart, stomach, and lungs of a living organism, which is perhaps where the sense of resisting the negative implications of their roles comes from. On the other hand, the sisters are the only ones we hear criticizing each other and confining each other to certain roles or stigmas, which goes against the aim of the film.
Following the sisters through nearly their whole lives, the film is constructed like a triptych. The first section of the triptych follows their childhood, the second middle age, and the third old age and the end of life for the surviving sisters. Although divided in a linear chronology, the traumas and memories of the first section reassert themselves throughout the rest of the film.
Although a triptych, the film pivots on a clear turning point when Antonella (Viola Pusateri), who can’t be older than five, dies in an accident at the beach. Both in plot and in aesthetics, the film splits into before Antonella died and after Antonella died, which challenges the triptych and adds a dual structure to the film. The first third is filmed in warm, incandescent sunlight and the birds are called “doves,” while the last parts of the film are darker and grayer and the birds become “pigeons.” The way events of the first third are both reenacted in memory and echoed in the lives of the sisters in the last two-thirds of the film also creates a mirror effect between before Antonella’s death and after.
In some ways, this double structure of a mirror and a triptych is highly effective in making the audience take on the sisters’ grief as if it was our own. In the first third, Antonella watches one of her sisters apply lipstick and begs for some. Her sister says she is too little, but eventually acquiesces. When her sister, in middle age, remembers this moment on the day of Antonella’s death, the little girl appears to her and she reenacts the scene of applying the lipstick in one of the most heartbreaking moments of the film. In other ways, like the assigned roles or stigmas of the sisters, the film’s structure confines the narrative into being doomed to continue to mirror the tragedy, reenact grief, and trap the sisters in a dead-end story.
The gorgeous and meticulous cinematography of the film reflects this confinement that I’ve written about in terms of character and narrative. What makes the cinematography so spectacular is that it doesn’t make a spectacle of hardship and the decaying buildings of Palermo, while still creating beautiful shots and vistas. No shot is cliché or sentimental, but they also don’t lack feeling because each shot is carefully crafted to represent or respond to the interior lives of these five sisters.
Dante further emphasizes confinement through her use of close, careful shots. The opening scene focuses on a metal rod and the girls’ hands clutching it as they try to bore a hole through the wall (a metaphor for escape?). The close-up on the dust from the plaster at their feet. A shot of boots walking into the dovecote. The meticulous close-ups could be read as nostalgic, but the way they confine the scene and cut it off from context has a sinister undertone.
Sounds are also cut off from the broader context. One of the most innovative and interesting aspects of the film is its use of sound. Dante twists our senses. Sounds and conversations are heard indirectly through walls, water, and from other rooms. The sound of the metal rod grating into the plaster in the opening scene overwhelms the senses. When the girls bore through the wall, the sound of waves crashes through. They are focused on seeing through the wall, but the audience must listen, so sight and sound become twisted together. It’s sort of like sensory details follow the broad, swooping strokes of the doves, and the meandering, reminiscing path of the narrative itself.
While I could get lost in the cinematography and dreamy soundscape Dante crafts, other elements of the narrative feel more like a study for the masterpiece rather than living up to the film’s full potential. After Antonella’s death, the transition to older age feels jarring. While scenes, like applying lipstick on Antonella instilled true and profound grief in me, the film often falls into the trap of one-dimensional emotion. The whimsicality of the meandering narrative in the first third of the film is lost to a much simpler narrative about lifelong grief that keeps returning, in a clear pattern, to the events of the first third. I found that the meandering narrative of the Macaluso sisters’ childhood was so captivating that my expectations for the rest of the film were for a bigger, more dimensional story.
“No.” No, the sisters can’t break free from their grief and the home of their deceased parents where they failed to raise their youngest sister. They confine each other, ridicule each other, offer little to no redemption. While in some ways, the sisters’ interactions felt painfully and tragically real and believable, I also had to ask: What statement is this film making by trapping five industrious women and showing them berate each other? “When will you set them free?” one sister asks about the doves, and so do we. And later in the film, one sister defends keeping the dovecote: “They keep coming back. Do you want to kill them?”
Violence lurks at the edges of this film. While Dante and many critics emphasize how the film deals with grief, I think The Macaluso Sisters makes complex statements on how we portray grief, violence, and art. Dante insists on making us look at the bloody guts of animals at Maria’s work, which reads as gratuitous, especially since Antonella dies off camera. In another moment when sound and sight become confused, Antonella slips out of the shot and we hear the splash of her body hit the water. Dante doesn’t shy away from violence, but she’s also not going to make a spectacle of a little girl’s death. The implications are enough. And in some ways, in the moment before Antonella’s fatal accident, the jagged edge of a broken piece of metal ladder that remains in the shot after Antonella’s small feet, which keep slipping, disappear up the ladder rungs, high above the water, is more violent than showing her death.
Ultimately, while I wanted more from some aspects of the movie, I find myself excitedly anticipating whatever may be Emma Dante’s next work.