Among the most socially conscious of today’s helmers, Marco Tullio Giordana follows his microcosm of late 20th-century Italian history, “The Best of Youth,” with a clear look at a current political hot potato: clandestine immigrants. While Giordana knows how to wrap big issues in the accessible cloak of a sympathetic family, his desire to present the total illegal immigrant experience at times becomes overly symbolic in “Once You’re Born You Can No Longer Hide.” Emotionally affecting nonetheless, pic should have little problem finding off-shore auds hungry for solid Italo fare.
Italy’s extensive coastline makes it a target for unscrupulous smugglers and their refugees. What to do with these refugees, especially in the north where industrial centers are magnets for low-income workers, has prompted ugly debates within Italy’s center-right ruling coalition, whose anti-immigration posters Giordana inserts to drive his point home.
While recent pics have dealt with Eastern Europeans in Italy, “Once You’re Born…” makes a broader statement about the country’s attitudes and responsibilities. Pic is divided into two distinct halves: The first focuses on a liberal family (the kind Giordana consistently chooses as his conduit), while the second plunges into the degradation of Third World refugees.
Bruno and Lucia Lombardi (Alessio Boni, Michela Cescon) live in the northern city of Brescia, where he owns a factory. One day, their 10-year-old son Sandro (Matteo Gadola) sees an African man trying to make a call on a broken pay phone; when Sandro points out the out-of-order sign, the man becomes agitated, pulling off his soiled clothing and repeating incomprehensible words. Police come to take the man away, leaving Sandro both disturbed and intrigued.
Sandro’s world is already more multi-ethnic than the worlds of most Italians: His best friend Samuel (Kubiwimania George Valdesturlo) is black, as are a number of his father’s workers. Yet, none of them can translate the distraught man’s phrase.
In a nice tie-up toward the pic’s end, Sandro discovers the words — which translated are the pic’s title — are also the name of an African (Emmanuel Dabone) working at a refugee processing center. Whether the man at the phone booth was crying out this name or, more likely, lamenting his fate, is left unanswered.
On a yachting vacation in Greece, a sleepy Sandro loses his balance and falls into the sea. With the ship slowly moving away, Giordana and regular d.p. Roberto Forza create strikingly beautiful images using a palette of ever darkening blues and deep shadows. When Bruno discovers Sandro’s absence, Giordana keeps the scene muted, refusing to overplay the apparent tragedy.
Just as Sandro sinks beneath the waves, he loses conciousness and is scooped up, coming to on an over-crowded barge, a Noah’s Ark of Third World misery with a couple of brutal Sicilians (Marcello Prayer, Giovanni Martorana) in charge. On the barge, Sandro makes friends with Radu (Vlad Alexandru Toma), a young Romanian traveling with his sister Alina (Ester Hazan). “Sandro’s awakening” could easily be the subtitle for this second half. Giordana’s bold vision of a changing Italy embraces not only the pan-cultural immigrants but, through regional accents and dialects, the heterogeneity of the Italians themselves. He shows, through the ultra-modern Lombardi home and the ever-growing nondescript industrial parks that surround Brescia, an Italy hesitantly engaging the present and future, good sides and bad.
This uncertainty suffuses “Once You’re Born…” Radu, however, is the embodiment of the pic’s ambiguity. Solidly played by Toma, Radu is both Sandro’s savior and the betrayer of his family’s trust, apparently guardian brother to Alina but also a darker presence.
The narrative slows down, however, in the multi-ethnic roll call of refugees, more symbolic than real. In their desire to reveal shared humanity and yet assert differences, Giordana and fellow scripters Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli (who all worked on “The Best of Youth”) fall into a didactic trap that plays against the subtlety of the earlier scenes. Masterful story-tellers, their vision falters in the last quarter, until the powerful ending.
Gadola, in his acting debut, is a natural talent, completely at ease before the camera. Equally memorable is Hazan, who brings a feral quality to the largely silent role of Alina, her haunting face used, like Jasmine Trinca’s in “The Best of Youth,” to convey the idea of a soul brutalized by unfathomable cruelties.
Boni, so memorable as Matteo in “The Best of Youth,” continues to prove his mettle; worth singling out is a particularly moving moment when he grasps Radu’s hands in thanks and breaks down in distraught relief.
Forza makes terrific use of anamorphic widescreen, especially in the yacht scenes where the expanse of the sea emphasizes the boat’s isolation. His knowledge of film history shows up, including in a probable borrowing from the famous “Gone With the Wind” shot of Scarlett walking amidst the wounded. Here it is transferred to Sandro rising from a sea of refugees and is no less compelling for being on a smaller scale.