Hailing from Africa, their eyes set on Europe, they come with empty hands and infinite dreams, drawn across deserts and oceans by the promise of a better life. Occasionally, they make the news, when a boat sinks en route or police crack down on the other side, but by and large, these immigrants remain invisible, despite the fact their personal struggles would make for incredible stories. In “Mediterranea,” director Jonas Carpignano recognizes that potential and yet resists many of the filmmaking choices that would make the trek from Burkina Faso to Italy easily relatable to a mainstream audience, opting instead for a more rarefied art-film format. Though it allows us to share in their ordeal, the film doesn’t presume to “know” its protagonists by the end, yielding a more complex and challenging portrait, one whose greatest impact will occur on the festival circuit, from which Carpignano should emerge a breakout.
The adoptive European cousin to “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin’s Court 13 collective, Carpignano brings a kindred sensibility to his feature debut, while resisting the more ecstatic touches that made “Beasts” such a revelation to audiences. Instead, what “Mediterranea” shares with that film is a relatively privileged filmmaker’s genuinely well-intentioned impulse to humanize a community that exists on the margins, not from a distance, but by immersing himself in that world and then crafting a movie from the details he finds there.
In 2010, when race riots erupted in Rosarno, Italy, Carpignano felt compelled to visit the region of Calabria in order to get a better understanding of the dynamic that had snapped there, discovering Burkinabe immigrant Koudous Seihon in the process. A non-actor whose magnetic screen presence Caprignano was keen enough to recognize outright, Seihon became a close friend and muse of sorts, indirectly inspiring the character of Ayiva through his own experience: A single father with no means to support his daughter, Seihoun had left Burkina Faso years earlier, braving the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea for an existence far different from the one he’d imagined.
As fictionalized in Carpignano’s script, which he developed through Sundance’s Screenwriters Lab (though it bears little trace of the institute’s typically audience-friendly influence), Ayiva makes the trip with close friend Abas (Alassane Sy). Although the resulting pic provides almost no expository detail with which to get a handle on these characters, the contrast in their attitudes and personalities says virtually all that’s necessary: Having survived desert bandits, ocean storms and arrest, Ayiva arrives determined to make things work, even if that means harvesting oranges for half wages and living in a makeshift shack. Abas, on the other hand, dares to question the unfair arrangement that awaits them, refusing to be someone else’s slave.
Carpignano cares deeply for Ayiva’s character, and Ayiva cares for Abas, but that isn’t necessarily enough to grab audiences, who are thrown into the deep end here and left treading water in terms of understanding who these men are, why and how they’re making this life-threatening trek, and what they expected to find when they got there. After nearly drowning at sea, the men are given three months to find legitimate residency papers in Italy, rather than being deported immediately. They reunite with a character named Mades, who points them in the direction of semi-exploitative employment, and hang out with young women, who earn their money via a far older profession.
Abas immediately buys into the promise of First World opportunity, as touted in music by Taylor Swift and Rihanna — the latter representing an empowering person of color, even as the “hopeless place” described in her song “We Found Love” has never seemed truer. Not Ayiva, however, who has a stricter moral code. Like a character from a Rossellini movie, he allows himself one transgression, stealing a suitcase from an elderly white man on a train because he needs a sweater, then selling the iPod he finds inside so he can send money home to his family. He, too, is tempted by attractive women, but resists, instead choosing to bond with his boss’ disrespectful daughter, who reminds him of his own girl back home.
While many of their feelings are universally relatable, it can be hard work trying to follow what these two characters are thinking at any given moment, in part because of Carpignano’s grainy, handheld style. Though not as aggressively shaky as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (on which the director served as second a.d., while Zeitlin pitches in on this film’s subtly used, tone-driven score), “Mediterranea’s” look has clearly been designed to disorient, with its tightly framed, context-constricting shooting, elliptical jump-cutting and the obvious communication barriers that arise from its bewildering mix of languages. It’s a fair approach, considering that the characters are confused and overwhelmed as well, but at least they know who they are (or were), whereas we’re often grasping to identify.
Carpignano re-created the same Rosarno riots that drew him to the area in an earlier short, “A Chiana,” which won the Critics’ Week prize in Cannes last year, and now this expanded feature — which fleshes out the backstory of that conflict, albeit in fragmented form — is premiering in the same section. (Another unforgettable character, a street-savvy preteen hustler who smokes cigarettes and sells stolen property, comes directly from the director’s other short, “A Ciambra.”) This time, the demonstrations quite literally demonstrate the philosophical rift between Ayiva and Abas, illustrating the tension of trying to assert one’s individuality within a racist culture, versus the loss of self that comes from assimilation, beautifully illustrated as one character slips out of focus in the film’s final shot.