Emanuele Crialese’s Terraferma (2011), one of three Italian films up for the Golden Lion (the film walked away with the Special Jury Prize), is a tale of simple folk dealing with difficult issues. Like Respiro (2002), the story is set on a remote Sicilian island with a diminishing fishing community, but this time revolves around a family trying to reconcile their traditional lifestyle with the encroachments of the 21st century: tourism, immigration and economic crisis.

Grandpa Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) is an old man of the sea. He’s already lost one son to the murky depths and the other, Nino (Giuseppe Fiorello), to the even murkier tourist industry. He refuses to sell his rotting fishing boat and trade it in for an easy life, but continues to go to sea with his grandson Filippo (Filippo Pucillo).

Ernesto and his contemporaries represent an honourable and brave profession, one that is in sharp decline in Italy. Filippo’s mum Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro) is all for leaving the island, getting her dopey son an education and enjoying a life without hardship. Her idea is to rent their house for the summer, live in the garage, then head to the mainland for the winter.

One day, Ernesto and Filippo spy a dinghy full of immigrants. Calling the coastguard, they are warned not to take anyone on board, a new law having been passed by the Italian government stating that rescues at sea can count as “aiding and abetting illegal immigration”. However, Ernesto abides by the law of the sea and scoops some of the shipwrecked onto his boat. One of them is the heavily pregnant Sara and Ernesto takes her home. This causes all kinds of problems for the family, what with trying to keep the police at bay and the posh kids renting the house from hearing the baby (born on the kitchen table).

There is plenty of hammy acting and dodgy dialogue, with pantomime baddies and Forrest Gump-esque goodies. Filippo takes his posh house guests up a hill to see his “friends” – a dog, a donkey and a goat – when they’d actually asked to go to the beach. He takes one of them, Maura (Martina Codecasa), out on a watery midnight jaunt, only to find the sea kfull of pesky illegal immigrants, out to ruin his date.

Terraferma’s scenes observing the island’s fishermen are good, but could have been so much more powerful. The incredible, wild beauty of the island and its coastal waters have not been exploited and there too few nuances to the story, just heavy-handedness. Biblical references can be found in the goodness of the fishermen, the fight for good over evil and the shelter of a pregnant immigrant in an outhouse followed by a birth. And perhaps this simple parable will suffice for some: Crialese did state that his ideal audience is a seven-year-old.

It seems that the Special Jury Prize win was a thank you note to Italy for hosting the festival, the ‘special’ here more Forrest Gump than festival (bearing in mind that much worthier contenders such as Carnage, A Dangerous Method and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy went home without any silverware). It will guarantee the film a wider audience, which its subject matter deserves.

The situation on the Sicilian islands depicted in Crialese’s film has become almost untenable for inhabitants and new arrivals alike and any means of keeping alive the debate about the immigrant question and how it is dealt with is welcome. However, whilst Terraferma is honourable in its intentions, it falls down in terms of quality.

For more Venice Film Festival 2011 coverage, simply follow this link.

Jo-Ann Titmarsh