Thirteen years after directing his last TV documentary, “In Calabria,” Italy’s great filmmaker Vittorio De Seta returns with a long, heart-felt, but ultimately uninvolving story about an African youth struggling to survive in Italy. Despite pic’s good intentions and De Seta’s still keen eye for capturing striking images, “Letters From the Sahara” is likely to disappoint those who discovered the 82-year-old director through his powerful neorealist-inspired shorts of the ’50s and such milestone fiction films as “Bandits of Orgosolo” and “Half a Man.” Current work should cycle through fests before finding its most comfortable home on television.
Narrative is surprisingly conventional in conception and execution, with barely a hint of the modernity for which De Seta is famous. Opening on heartrending stills of boats packed with immigrants from every nation, the film tracks the young Sengalese Assane (Djibril Kebe) from his dramatic arrival on an Italian island — after being pushed into the sea by his boat’s panicking pilots — and his escape from deportation in Sicily, to his long train ride north and the various encounters he has for good or ill.
Given the many Italo films made about the anguish of immigration — Marco Tullio Giordana’s “Once You’re Born You Can No Longer Hide” is the most recent — there is very little in the first two hours of “Letters” that stands out. Assane, who is played by Kebe with passion and a hint of darkness, seems more like an encyclopedia of immigrant stories than an individually imagined character.
His jobs run from street vendor to black market laborer, from factory hand to taking care of an unruly teen. He is alternately pursued by the police, miraculously given residence papers, and beaten up by a gang of hoodlums. His platonic relationship with the obviously enamored social worker Caterina (Paola Ajmone Rondo) is simply implausible.
Only in pic’s final scenes, set in Senegal, does some sort of pay-off arrive. Here De Seta’s genius for ethnographic documentary and showing collective labor in breath-takingly fresh images reappears in all its glory. The final summing up is more than a little preachy, echoing an earlier overly explicit scene in which a Catholic priest chastises his parishioners for their racism.
Apart from Kebe, film offers two unforgettable characters: his cousin Salimata (Fifi Cisse), a model living with an Italian outside Florence whose lifestyle the strict Muslim boy cannot accept, and Assane’s stern, sage teacher back home (Thierno Ndiaye).