A fascination with small fishing communities frozen in time and with local culture and dialects in recent years has spawned Italian films like Vincenzo Marra’s “Sailing Home,” Emanuele Crialese’s “Respiro” and Costanza Quatriglio’s “The Island,” all of which to varying degrees owe a debt to Luchino Visconti’s classic “La Terra Trema.” While it takes time to focus fully on the central characters and communicate where it’s going, Quatriglio’s debut feature displays an authentic, empathetic feeling for the people, place and way of life it portrays. The modest but nicely textured production will make an appealing entry for new director showcases.
Set in a small village of tuna fishermen on one of Sicily’s Egadi Islands and unfolding over the course of a year, the story focuses on a humble family whose father (Marcello Mazzarella) has begun teaching his 14-year-old son Turi (Ignazio Ernandes) to work the nets.
Turi’s 10-year-old sister Teresa (Veronica Guarrasi) idolizes her taciturn older brother, observing his induction into the adult world of the fishermen with excitement but also a tinge of sadness at the distancing of her childhood companion. She yearns in vain to be a fishermen like her grandfather, who died saving her from drowning.
While the specter of tragedy and hardship in the air quietly creates anticipation of grave events to come, those events never materialize. Instead, Quatriglio teases out a touching portrait of the brother and sister as kids going through the usual growing experiences in a rugged environment that dictates early maturity and pragmatism.
Their discovery of feelings like jealousy and desire is sensitively explored with the arrival of Margherita (Ilary De Ioannon), a young tourist attracted to Turi; and via the attentions of Leonardo (Francesco Vasile), another fledgling fishermen whose superior strength makes Turi defensive. The hostility between them is compounded when the other boy begins openly admiring Teresa.
The coming-of-age elements that eventually emerge as the film’s narrative core feel far from standard and are enriched by their development within an almost ethnographic framework and a harsh physical setting combining rocky volcanic landscapes and impoverished housing with the surrounding vastness of the sea. Quatriglio trains a documentary-style gaze on the fishermen and their unmodernized work rituals, chanting traditional songs as they haul in their nets. Even when showing brutal footage of thrashing tuna being harpooned, the director’s approach is deeply respectful.
Focusing mainly on Teresa, the film has an insightful grasp not only of the relationships between children but also those they form with adults. The young girl’s bond with her loving grandmother (Anna Ernandes) supplies poignant moments, as do her exchanges with an old villager who takes her out by boat to observe the tuna-netting up close. Children’s unfiltered curiosity is illustrated by Teresa’s conversations with a mechanic (Erri De Luca) convicted of murder but able to move freely on the island due to the natural prison of the sea.
While Guarrasi at times borders on being knowingly cute, Quatriglio maintains control, drawing naturalistic, unaffected performances from the mainly non-professional cast. Mazzarella (who played Proust in Raoul Ruiz’s “Time Regained”) makes the father a stern yet paternal figure.
D.p. Aldo Di Marcantonio shoots the gentle drama in a style that’s simple and uncosmeticized but quite fitting. Paolo Fresu’s lovely, unintrusive score moves from lazy, jazz-style sounds to atmospheric vocal themes, enveloped by the sounds of the sea, which ultimately, represents the heart of the movie.