Following his lyrical “Shun Li and the Poet,” distinctive Italo helmer Andrea Segre returns to the theme of immigration with a beautifully lensed drama whose structural imbalance is partly offset by an expressive use of late autumnal nature. “First Snowfall” won’t get the same degree of fest play as Segre’s previous pic, but his focus on the refugee experience in Italy, here via a man from Togo whose personal tragedy finds a parallel of sorts in the family of his employer, marks a refreshing change from the peninsula’s usual fare and should play well at showcases.
The Alpine area northeast of the city of Trento seems an unlikely place for a group of African refugees, but Italy’s influx of immigrants, many undergoing perilous sea crossings from Libya, has dispersed these men and women throughout the country. It’s here that Dani (Jean-Christoph Folly, “Sleeping Sickness”) lives in a group center with his toddler daughter, Fatou (Manuela Chisom Lunginus), and works with elderly carpenter Pietro (Peter Mitterrutzner). Dani’s wife died nearly one year earlier while giving birth, her system shattered by the treacherous voyage across the Mediterranean, and as a result he’s going through the motions of life, unable to engage with his child.
Pietro’s recently widowed daughter-in-law, Elisa (Anita Caprioli), helps to run the refugee home, but life in her own house is difficult with her 11-year-old son, Michele (Matteo Marechal, commendable in his thesping debut), a precocious kid who has been acting out and skipping school. Haunted by his father’s death and over-interpreting arguments his parents used to have, Michele gets relief from his nightmares only when he sleeps at Grandpa’s.
Segre makes the locale a major character: The Mocheno Valley is an isolated mountainous area whose residents speak a Germanic dialect distinct to the region. Setting the story in the fall allows him to utilize the crystal blue light dappling yellow leaves on the forested slopes, capturing the splendid melancholy of the season’s shift to winter’s harsher climes. Dani’s never seen snow before, and his sense of foreignness is heightened by the colder weather, along with the peculiarities of such an environment.
Oddly, the director pretends as if no racism exists in the region, and neither Dani nor his fellow refugees experience any hostility in a place known for its insularity. Instead, nature brings together Dani, a city-dweller from Lome, and country boy Michele, both struggling alone with their mutual grief. Balancing their two stories is a tricky game that Segre doesn’t quite manage; he seems to suggest that everyone has their traumas, yet this sort of relativism in some sense belittles the pain on both sides.
The landscape’s healing touch is highlighted in too many interludes set in the forest, with overhead shots of trees and sweet, gentle music meant to offer poetic breathing spaces but more often feeling superfluous; one example is a scene of Michele and friends singing along to an old Italian country-western song, the boys careening through forests and meadows as if headlining a musicvid for preteens. Fortunately, Luca Bigazzi’s glorious lensing is a reward in itself, and even when shots are superfluous they’re a pleasure to behold, keenly attuned to effects of light and color during the changing season. As in “Shun Li,” however, incidental music is overly sweet and too often intrudes on moments best left silent.