Every European country seems convinced that it is an especial victim of illegal immigration. The UK sees itself as a soft touch, as do Germany and France. For Italy, the geographical proximity to Northern Africa and a long coastline has led to some extremely draconian legislation to deal with the perceived crisis. This is the context of Emanuele Crialese’s award-winning film, Terraferma (2011), which screens tonight at the BFI London Film Festival.
Terraferma is an angry and heartfelt denunciation of the situation, but despite a beautiful opening sequence – the camera emerging from underwater scenes to the reality of a fisherman’s life – the film sinks beneath its crude characterisations, melodramatic twists and the mawkish simplicity of its own politics. This simplicity is best represented by the Forrest Gump-like Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), who fishes with his noble grandfather Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio). Each character stands for something, and so in effect ceases to be a character. Ernesto mutters on about the law of the sea and the old ways, framed in chiaroscuro as he fixes the boat’s propeller – he is exactly what he needs to be to make the point, but nothing more.
After Ernesto and Filippo rescue a pregnant immigrant and her son from the sea and (again lit like an old master’s rendering of the nativity), she punctually gives birth on the kitchen table. The rest of the film explores the family’s dilemma of whether to turn the young mother and child in to the authorities, or to not.
The pity here is that there is a genuine film to be made about this subject, but one which honestly stresses more of the realism and less of the social. Perversely, the strongest image of Terraferma works against its ostensible political purpose – a moonlit cruise with Filippo and his girl, which is rudely interrupted by a shoal of swimming immigrants. They threaten to capsize the boat and Filippo ferociously strikes at their hands with an oar before getting away. It is a moment of genuine fear and a human – though shameful – reaction.
Having won the prestigious Special Jury Prize award at this year’s Venice Film Festival and now the official Italian entry for the Best Foreign Film category at next year’s Academy Awards, Terraferma looks set to try and repeat the international success of the brilliant Gomorrah (2008). However, whereas Matteo Garrone’s film daringly revealed the moral ambiguity at the dark heart of the Italian experience (no Oscar nomination here), Crialese’s film is ultimately reassuring to audiences, showing that we do – after all – have our hearts in the right place.
For more BFI London Film Festival 2011 coverage, simply follow this link.