Exceptional performance and production design make this grim play adaptation from writer-director Emma Dante worthwhile
The lingering damage of tragedy and blame forms the crux of this Italian family drama, adapted by Emma Dante from her own stage play. The Macaluso Sisters explores how one pivotal event can shape an entire family for decades, as five sisters argue, fight, and care for one another under often deeply upsetting circumstances.
The story’s theatrical origins are obvious, with the vast majority of the action taking place in the sisters’ slowly decaying top-floor flat. We start off in the ‘80s, with the older two sisters in their late teens, the middle two about 12, and the youngest five or six. Looking after themselves without parents, they’re a tense, quarrelsome bunch, but there’s a clear undercurrent of love and freewheeling joy, using the money they make selling doves to fund excursions into the city.
A trip to the beach, where all five finally seem to be getting along, is splendid fun, until it takes a turn for the tragic in a scene executed with wrenching skill. From here, we jump forward about 30 years to catch up with the sad, broken lives of the sisters left behind.
It takes a bit of time to adjust to the time skip, but pitch perfect casting does speed up the process – every sister’s older self bears an uncanny resemblance not only physically, but in performance style too. Dante and her cast do an amazing job of recreating the regression when you reunite with family members, the years rolling back almost unnoticed until you’re children again, and the simultaneous comfort and conflict this brings.
There are some great performances at the heart of The Macaluso Sisters, letting us into these shattered, emotionally frozen lives, keeping you engaged even when the film finds itself stuck in a single gear. The adult segment, shot through with a much colder and greyer colour palette than the sunny time spent with the kids, is relentlessly bleak, to the point where it becomes less affecting than draining, particularly in the unbroken shots of some stomach-turning binge-eating.
Outside of the sisters, Dante also manages to turn the apartment into a character of its own, one that exerts an influence over the sisters as if it were one of them. It’s both a fortress and a prison, a place where they feel safe but that they are also unhealthily attached to, unable to move on and find peace. There’s a lot of care taken with the little details – one of the younger sisters stubs out her cigarettes as an adult in the exact spot an older one did as kids – making for one of the year’s most believably lived-in sets.
The Macaluso Sisters is a rather gruelling film, one that doesn’t always reward the work it asks of the audience, but when it shines, it’s great. Exceptional production design and raw performances drive its key scenes home, even if it’s a bit of a slog to get to them. If you like your Christmas viewing to be a bit more melancholic than the usual festive fare, Dante’s family tragedy will suit you down to the ground.
The Macaluso Sisters is now streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.Where to watch