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Riding the wave of Italian immigrant dramas that have been topical for years, writer-director Emanuele Crialese’s Terraferma is an unremarkable story flying a passionate moral banner. The film contrasts Italy’s traditional humanist values to inhuman new laws aimed at stemming illegal immigration and insists it’s morally imperative to rebel against them. Its main commercial outlet will certainly be Italy, where the terrible clash between Italian law and “the law of the sea” will resonate the most. Much more straightforward than Crialese’s poignantThe Golden Door, which traced the sea journey of Italian immigrants to America a hundred years ago, Terraferma’s realistic, downplayed storytelling is unlikely to increase the director’s offshore following.
Linosa is a minor island south of Sicily, far from the Italian mainland, which the locals call “solid land,” or terraferma. When a local fishing boat runs into a raft teeming with exhausted, dying Africans, wizened captain Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) instinctively rescues six swimmers, while the Coast Guard arrives to save, and repatriate, the rest. The next day the authorities confiscate his boat because he failed to report the illegal immigrants that he and his crew took to the island.
Even more dangerously, Ernesto offers shelter to a boy and his pregnant mother who gives birth in their garage, against the will of his daughter-in-law Giulia (Donatella Finocchiaro) and unbeknownst to three young tourists sleeping next door.
The first half of Terraferma labors to set the scene on the picturesque volcanic island and establish the position of the inhabitants. The most modern of the fisherman’s sons (Giuseppe Fiorello) wants to cater to the island’s summer tourists; for him, a beach full off half-dead immigrants is a turnoff for vacationers. But the older fishermen, the most politically correct of the lot, insist on their right to save the shipwrecked, and stage protests in front of the police station.
The story catches fire a bit in the second act. Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), Giulia’s immature 20-year-old son, has been torn between the traditional, dying world of his grandfather and his mother’s hunger to leave the island for new opportunities. Now the choice between old and new is sidelined by the dramatic situation of the immigrants in the garage, and what to do with them. In a nightmarish scene at sea at night, he commits an unthinkable crime, which can only be redeemed by an act of courageous folly that closes the film on an upbeat note.
The simple characters are easy to read and unsurprising, allowing the veteran Sicilian actors to walk through their roles. Only toung Pucillo, a Crialese regular, brings Filippo to life as a confused youth whose initiation into manhood comes hard, and newcomer Timnit T. has a haunting presence in the role of the young Ethiopian mother.
With its seductive beaches and dangerous waters, Linosa plays a major role in the drama, although it is less emphasized than the island of Lampedusa in Respiro. Fabio Cianchetti’s lighting brings out the ethereal beauty of the sea in dreamy underwater shots, and the harsh austerity of the volcanic island, which is in the process of being banalized by frolicking tourists.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (In Competition)
Production company: Cattleya in association with Rai Cinema, Babe Films, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Filippo Pucillo Donatella Finocchiaro, Mimmo Cuticchio, Giuseppe Fiorello, Timnit T., Martina Codecasa, Claudio Santamaria, Filippo Scarafia, Pierpaolo Spollon, Tiziana Lodato, Rubel Tsegay Abraha
Director: Emanuele Crialese
Screenwriters: Emanuele Crialese, Vittorio Moroni
Executive producer: Gina Gardini
Producers: Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz
Co-producer, Fabio Conversi
Director of photography: Fabio Cianchetti
Production designer: Paolo Bonfini
Music: Franco Piersanti
Costumes: Eva Coen
Editor: Simona Paggi
Sales Agent: Elle Driver
Running time: 92 minutes
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