“L’Attesa”: Juliette Binoche stars as a mother with a terrible secret she can’t bear to tell her son’s visiting girlfriend. 3.5 out of 4 stars.

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“I’m waiting for the right time to tell her,” says Anna (Juliette Binoche), in a broken, tiny whisper. The news that she can’t tell is so terrible that you see Anna’s lips tremble when she later tries, and fails, to say it — she just can’t form the words. Her son, Giuseppe, is dead, and his girlfriend Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), who has come to visit for Easter, does not know.

“L’Attesa,” from Italian filmmaker Piero Messina (in his first feature), is a spare, elegant tale of heartbreak — of how a story untold lets a character clutch desperately to another story, one that isn’t true. Anna, a Frenchwoman who lives in Sicily, in the kind of ancient home where footsteps echo through quiet hallways, is keeping her son alive by refusing to tell Jeanne of his death; she can pretend that she, like Jeanne, is just waiting for him to arrive. (The film’s title in English is “The Wait.”)

Little happens during the film as we, like Anna and Jeanne, wait for someone who isn’t coming: Meals are cooked, walks are taken, voicemail messages to Giuseppe are left (by a puzzled, increasingly worried Jeanne) and listened to (sadly, by Anna, who has his phone). We see beautiful shots of the Sicilian countryside — a road edged in mist, making it faint, like memory — and of the artfully captured light in Anna’s home. But mostly, we watch Binoche’s face, in eloquent, mesmerizing close-up; pain and grief engulf her expression like water flooding into a still pool. She has few words. She doesn’t need them.

Movie Review ★★★½  

‘L’Attesa,’ with Juliette Binoche, Lou de Laâge, Domenico Diele, Antonio Folletto, Corinna Lo Castro. Directed by Piero Messina, from a screenplay by Messina, Giacomo Bendotti, Ilaria Macchia and Andrea Paolo Massara. 100 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In French and Italian, with English subtitles. SIFF Cinema Uptown.