American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
That there is something not right about Grazia, all the village agrees. "Bring her shot!" her husband calls out at fraught moments, and the children and neighbors hold her down while he jabs her with a needle filled with--what? It calms her down, anyway. There is said to be a doctor in Milan who could help her, but when the entire village unites in favor of the Milan trip, Grazia runs away and is thought to be dead in the sea.
The village is angry at her because Grazia opened the doors of an old stone building and released dozens of stray dogs to run about the streets. Whether they were rabid or just homeless is not clear, and why they were being held instead of put down is not explained, but the men of the village are resourceful and take to their rooftops with rifles to shoot all the dogs. Then it becomes clear that Grazia must go to Milan: "This can't go on." The village is on the Italian island of Lampedusa, not far from Tunisia. Whether "Respiro" paints an accurate portrait of its society, I cannot say. Fishing and canning are the local industries, everybody lives in everybody else's pockets, and the harsh sun beats down on a landscape of rock and beach, sea and sky, and sand-colored homes surrounded by children and Vespas.
In this world, Grazia (Valeria Golino) is a legend. Young-looking to be the mother of three children, one a teenager, she is married to Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), a handsome fisherman who loves her but is understandably disturbed when his boat passes a beach where Grazia is swimming nude with their children. More accurately, she is naked, and her son Pasquale (Francesco Casisa) wants her to put her clothes back on and come home with him.
Pasquale tries to protect his mother. She has what we in the audience diagnose as manic depression, although the movie never declares itself. Mostly, she's in the manic phase, too happy, too uncontrolled, burning with a fierce delight that wears out everyone else. Rather than go to Milan, she runs away, and Pasquale helps her hide in a cave he knows and brings her food while the village searches for her and Pietro grows bereft.