A muscular, moving thriller with a three-sided perspective on the moral complexities of immigration, "Color of the Ocean" is a well told story that would be a terrific promo for Canary Islands tourism given its sun-drenched beaches, except for the dead and dehydrated boat people scattered along them.

A muscular, moving thriller with a three-sided perspective on the moral complexities of immigration, “Color of the Ocean” would be a terrific promo for Canary Islands tourism given its sun-drenched beaches, except for the dead and dehydrated boat people scattered along them. Two of these are at the heart of writer-director Maggie Peren’s well-told story, whose deft handling and universal issues could find a helping hand in the specialty market.

Peren’s strategy is to provide just enough information about her main characters to prompt a conclusion about their virtues — or lack thereof — which are subsequently borne out, or not. When the grim-faced Jose (Alex Gonzalez) gets a knock on his door one morning, it’s unclear what the woman outside, Marielle (Alba Alonso) wants or who she is, so we can’t quite read Jose’s rejection of her. When he can’t bring himself to help her shoot up — Marielle is his junkie sister, it turns out — it’s unclear whether his reaction is one of protectiveness or disgust. He’s either a good brother or a really hard case.

The latter, it seems. A veteran border patrolman whose beat encompasses the Canary Islands beaches on which African refugees arrive in veritable droves, he has heard all the stories and lies, and has hardened himself to the suffering and shock of tourists like Nathalie (Sabine Timoteo), a German who has saved the lives of two new survivors of the ocean crossing simply by giving them bottled water. Zola (Hubert Kounde) and his young son, Mamadou (Dami Adeeri) are forever in her debt, and she is inextricably linked, for better or worse, to their fight to stay on European soil.

Zola’s immediate predicament is to convince Jose that he and his son are Congolese and thus entitled to political asylum. If they’re Senegalese, policy dictates that they be deported immediately. Jose, unmoved by the plight of father and son, dismisses Zola’s claim (the truth of their nationality lies somewhere in between, it turns out), and the two immigrants are sent to a detention camp, only to find themselves ensnared in a situation where Nathalie’s well-intended involvement does as much harm as good.

Peren juggles the multiple perspectives of her story with aplomb. The narrative never bogs down in rhetoric; nor does the viewer get led astray, as “Color of the Ocean” hews to its three-pronged perspective. Nathalie is a sympathetic character, as are, of course, Zola and Mamadou. Jose is the wild card in the emotional equation; one can see why he does what he does, but it’s harder to fathom is why he insists on doing it so well. The facets of his personality — which are warped not just by cynicism, rage, disappointment in his sister and the power he wields over so many derelict lives — are wonderfully balanced by Gonzalez.

Tech credits are tops, especially Armin Franzen’s lensing of scenic locales.

Color of the Ocean

Germany

Production

A Sudart Filmproduktion presentation in association with Starhaus Filmproduktion, El Olivo Producciones, Audiovisuales S.L., Noirfilm Filmproduktion, KG/BR/Arte/SWR. (International sales: Cinepool, Munich.) Produced by Boris Jendreyko, Thomas Klimmer. Co-producers, Rainier Kolmel, Wasiliki Bleser, Gregorio Sacristan Gomez, Peter Welter Soler, Alfonso Garcia Lopez, Boris Michalski. Directed, written by Maggie Peren.

Crew

Camera (color), Armin Franzen; editor, Simon Blasi; music, Carolin Heiss, Marc-Sidney Mueller; production designer, Julian Wagner; costume designers, Manuel Bonillo, Ruth Semper; sound (Dolby Digital), Andre Bendocchi-Alves; casting, An Dorthe Braker, Barbie Heusinger, Rafael Palomin. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 13, 2011. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Alex Gonzalez, Sabine Timoteo, Hubert Kounde, Friedrich Muecke, Nathalie Poza, Alba Alonso, Dami Adeeri. (German, French, Spanish dialogue)

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