'Mediterranea': Cannes Review

Alassane Sy in 'Mediterranea'
Puts a human face on the refugee smuggling crisis and the difficult adjustment of what follows

This year's alarming death toll of illegal immigrants attempting the crossing from North Africa to Europe adds charged relevance to Jonas Carpignano's first feature.

The seductive promise of love, life and happiness embedded in songs by Rihanna and Taylor Swift sounds hollow indeed when heard in Jonas Carpignano's Mediterranea, an unvarnished account of the uneasy welcome that awaits African migrants who undertake the perilous journey by boat to Italy in search of better opportunities. Expanded from the American-Italian writer-director's 2012 short film A Chjana, the drama builds toward a visceral depiction of the 2010 immigrant riots in the Calabrian town of Rosarno. Its timeliness and some prominent industry names among the producers should help draw attention following its Cannes Critics Week launch.

Including the tragic capsizing of a vessel near the coast of Libya in April, the death toll for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year now exceeds 1,800. That humanitarian crisis has prompted an outcry for increased EU intervention. But statistics show that despite government promises to crack down on traffickers, the number of people seeking passage on smuggler boats continues to rise each summer, when the waters are warm enough to attempt the crossing.

Carpignano's film shows that reality with an unblinking, documentary-style gaze. Leaving aside the grim situations of poverty, famine, civil war and genocide that drive the North African exodus, the early scenes in particular provide harrowing insight into the hardships of the journey itself. We witness the dehumanizing process of migrants being herded like cattle in jam-packed trucks or on foot across harsh desert terrain, exploited by unscrupulous traffickers who keep bumping up their fee and robbed by violent bandits.

The actual sea voyage is a gripping sequence that starts with the shocking discovery that an inexperienced volunteer is expected to pilot the boat. A severe storm capsizes the flimsy, overloaded vessel, but the passengers get lucky, finding a semi-submerged structure on which to wait out the night until they are rescued by the Italian coast guard.

The two central characters are close friends from Burkina Faso, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy), who are not fleeing horrors but merely seeking a more economically viable future in a place that will allow them to support their families back home. In Ayiva's case, that includes his 7-year-old daughter, whom he left in his sister's care, hoping they will be able to follow him later.

Ayiva and Abas both had preconceived ideas of life in Italy formed by the enthusiastic Facebook posts of Mades (Adam Gnegne), another brother in their extended family. But it's immediately apparent upon arrival that the reality is quite different. The Italian authorities grant them a three-month permit, with eligibility for extended residence if they obtain a contracted job in that time, a near-impossible task. Living conditions are grim, either in makeshift settlements or illegally occupied buildings subject to eviction by police.

From the start, it's clear that Ayiva is the mature pragmatist, willing to make whatever compromises their circumstances require, while Abas is the sullen defeatist, expecting an instant passport to European prosperity. There's poignancy in the inevitable tension in their friendship as their outlooks clash. They both get day work picking and packing fruit at an orange grove whose owner, Rocco (Davide Schipilliti), appreciates Ayiva's work ethic and starts slipping him extra cash for sideline jobs. But when Ayiva asks for help to get official papers, Rocco's good will has its limits.

See more Cannes: The Red-Carpet Arrivals (Photos)

The racism and resentment of much of the local youth population is evident throughout, gradually darkening in a crescendo of violence after two Africans are killed. Carpignano lets the film drift a little in the buildup to the clash, becoming somewhat fragmented and rambling in the mid-section. Its take on the migrant community's experience includes the casual exploitation of African women, for whom employment openings are even more limited than for the men. But this is less dramatically cohesive than the tauter early sections depicting the journey and initial acclimation phase.

However, the unselfconscious naturalness of the nonprofessional cast yields no shortage of sharply observed moments. Among them are Ayiva's amused exchanges with Rocco's inquisitive daughter (Vincenzina Siciliano), an entitled but friendly brat who seems to embody his dreams for his own daughter; a shelter meal presided over by a patronizing Christian do-gooder who calls herself Mama Africa (Norma Ventre); and especially, Ayiva's interactions with Pio (Pio Amato), a preteen Romani wheeler-dealer shifting stolen goods, who extracts maximum advantage from every transaction.

Amato was the subject of Carpignano's short film A Ciambra; bumming cigarettes and shamelessly ripping off his customers while posing as a benevolent buddy, this kid could easily support his own full-length narrative.

In an environment where almost everyone seems economically disadvantaged, Carpignano examines a complex meeting of different cultures, without any of the self-important editorializing of the Issues Drama. Instead he presents a straight-up depiction of a tough social reality that echoes the wave of early-20th century immigration that took boatloads of poor Southern Italians to America. He takes a fascinating snapshot of the shifting population flow in a globalized world where technology provides a vital connection to home, and where every year more outsiders uproot their lives to subscribe to the dream, no matter how inhospitable it proves.

In addition to bursts of borderless pop princess Rihanna, there are gentle acoustic contributions by composers Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer, who collaborated on Beasts of the Southern Wild. The rough-edged looseness of cinematographer Wyatt Garfield's visuals recalls that film, notably in the nervy handheld camerawork of the opening journey and concluding riots.

Cast: Koudous Seihon, Alassane Sy, Adam Gnegne, Davide Schipilliti, Mary Elizabeth Innocence, Pio Amato, Vincenzina Siciliano, Francesco Papsergio, Norma Ventre
Production companies: Audax Films, Blu Grotto, Court 13, DCM, Good Films, Good Lap Production, Grazka Taylor Productions, Hyperion Media Group, Le Grisbi, Maiden Voyage Films, Nomadic, Independence, Sunset Junction, Treehouse Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Jonas Carpignano
Producers: Jason Michael Berman, Chris Columbus, Jon Coplon, Christoph Daniel, Andrew Kortschak, John Lesher, Ryan Lough, Justin Nappi, Alain Peyrollaz, Gwynn Sannia, Marc Schmidheiny, Victor Shapiro, Ryan Zacarias
Executive producers: Brooke Bernard, Joel Brandeis, Eleanor Columbus, Walter Kortschak, Carl H. Lindner III, Matt Lindner, Michael Mailis, Francesco Melzi, Tyler Owen, Raphael Swann, Dario Suter, Grazka Taylor, Kevin Turen
Director of photography: Wyatt Garfield
Production designer: Ascanio Viarigi
Costume designer: Nicoletta Taranta
Music: Benh Zeitlin, Dan Romer
Editors: Nico Luenen, Affonso Goncalves, Sanabel Chiraqoui
Sales: NDM
No rating, 110 minutes.