A changing world drives Italian fishermen to leave their island at the same time African immigrants risk their lives to get there in the unchallenging social drama “Terraferma.” The kind of pic that lays everything out nice and neat so auds can easily digest the arguments and feel good about themselves for not wanting people to die, this is a well-made movie with no pretension but also no crying need to be at a major film festival. Arthouse auds expecting something along the lines of Emanuele Crialese’s previous works, especially the superb “Golden Door,” will be disappointed.
Italian news these days is rarely without an item about illegal immigration, especially the over-filled boats making the dangerous voyage between north Africa and the tiny islands of Lampedusa and Linosa. It’s a hot-button topic manipulated by right-wing anti-immigration parties, and stories of Italians turning their backs on drowning refugees regularly send chills through the country’s majority. This is the background to “Terraferma,” and as such should play well on home territory, but it’ll be preaching to the converted.
Old fisherman Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) maintains the traditions of his island (the pic was predominantly shot on Linosa), though he’s an aging holdout in a place largely turned over to tourists. Grandson Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), 20, sticks with gramps but his widowed mom, Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro), knows the cruelty of the sea all too well, and wants them to head to the mainland where they can build a future. To earn money, she moves the family into the garage and rents the apartment to three young tourists.
While out fishing, Ernesto and Filippo spot a densely packed dinghy of Africans, some of whom jump ship and desperately try to reach their vessel. Though the radioed Coast Guard tells Ernesto to leave them and wait for an official boat, the old man’s law is the law of the sea, and he refuses to sit by and watch people drown. Among those he helps is a young Ethiopian boy (Rubel Tsegay Abraha) and his pregnant mom (Timnit T.), whom the fishermen take back home, where she quickly gives birth.
Giulietta is scared the police will arrest them for harboring illegal immigrants, yet her basic decency keeps her from turning her back on this family. Filippo, meanwhile, is confused; demonstrably immature, though unwilling to be coddled, he feels overwhelmed by the pressures facing his family and the island, resulting in an unthinking act that requires major redemption.
As with “Respiro,” the helmer is strong at capturing the peculiarities of life on an isolated island, and he has an unquestionable feel for the locale and zeitgeist. But as an issue film, “Terraferma” is without nuance. The dialogue has considerably more exposition than Crialese’s previous pics, and the theme of immigration, so marvelously realized in “Golden Door,” is here presented with the over-clarity of a book for adolescents. While Crialese has right on his side, most auds still expect him to deliver the message with a greater sense of artistry.
Fabio Cianchetti’s lensing is always superficially attractive, lit just-so in a way that outlines the actors with touches of silver at night and makes the darkened waters around the island shine with moonbeams. Nice visuals, nice story, nice everything — but sometimes nice just isn’t enough.