Finally, a refreshing look at the problems of illegal immigration in Italy that not only thinks outside the box but appears to be involved in the community it’s spotlighting. Freshman helmer Guido Lombardi’s “La-Bas. A Criminal Education” has some first-timer flaws, but it’s also got sincerity and honesty miles beyond most other big-budgeted local product. The small Rome- and Naples-based shingles backing Lombardi should be commended for putting coin into a pic that might not have great local legs but, with the right critical push, could travel the fest circuit and even hit Euro arthouse screens.
Castel Volturno is a coastal town 18 miles from Naples with a large African population and a problem with the Camorra. Artist Yssouf (Kader Alassane) is fresh off the plane from Africa, in search of an uncle who promised him a job and good money. Instead Yssouf only finds impoverished Africans struggling to make a living and maintain a sense of community.
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When he does locate Uncle Moses (Moussa Mone), Yssouf discovers he’s a drug dealer profiting from an uneasy partnership with a branch of the Camorra. Tempted by the possibility of earning quick dough, he joins his uncle’s biz and distances himself from the supportive, decent people he met when he first arrived. He’d like to see the incandescent Suad (Esther Elisha) again, but when he discovers she’s a prostitute, each is too ashamed to communicate.
Once a devout Muslim, Yssouf now drinks, skips prayers, and begins to feel increasingly uncomfortable with his participation in his uncle’s shady dealings. Rivalry between warring Camorra factions exposes the Africans’ dependence on local drug lords, and violence becomes inevitable.
The murderous night at the pic’s finale is based on an incident from 2008, when six African men were gunned down outside a tailor’s shop. “La-bas,” which is French for “down there,” reveals the vulnerability of members of this community who risked their lives to get to Italy, only to be confronted with a lack of employment and marginalization as outsiders.
Lombardi’s script could use a bit of tightening here and a little expansion there, but the sense of place is tangible, and it seems to look at the community from within rather than the usual vantage point of righteous First Worlders naively eager to prove they care. The decision to shoot mostly in French and English rather than Italian adds to the authenticity. Thesps are a mix of pros and amateurs, and while the combination works, there’s one stand-out in Elisha, an Afro-Italian actress who radiates confidence.
Lensing is informal and uncomplicated, though color correction on the print viewed appears not to be complete, and digital quality can be uneven. Editing builds toward the end and finds exactly the right rhythm to make the most of the tension.