The US release of Emanuele Crialese’s 2011's film comes not long after the first ever African immigrant to become a national official in Italy, a woman named Cecile Kyenge, received threats and was yelled racial slurs during her appointment ceremony, it also coincides with the heated immigration debate taking place now here in the States.
This unplanned but timely occurrence puts in perspective the way in which each country perceives foreigners.
The multiculturalism prevalent in America is the product of endless generations of immigrants from every corner of the globe, coming to a prosperous land, at least more so in the past. In the European nation, which is struggling to make ends meet and is financially fragile, illegal newcomers are seen as a rampant threat both because of the lack of opportunities for nationals there, and because racial diversity is not an inherent part of their history. Brilliantly surpassing the mere politics of the issue, Terraferma (solid ground) subtly serves as an expedite analysis of modern Italian society through the experiences of a family fighting to keep their rustic way of life, and it is told in a beautiful style that resembles classic neorealist art house cinema.
Isolating his characters to further study them in an untouched microcosm, Crialese sets his story on a Mediterranean island, a significant decision that places them in the middle ground between the bursting urbanized cities in mainland Italy and the North African nations that work as trampolines for hordes of desperate Sub-Saharan African immigrants. On that island, local fishermen, among them Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio), resiliently attempt to survive using their ancient skills and obeying the empirical laws of the sea. He upholds the importance of making a living out of one’s hard work, and wants his grandson 20 year-old Filippo (Filippo Pucillo) to carry on with such tradition.
But, the island is changing; people have turned to tourism to make a profit as fishing the old-fashioned way has become obsolete. Filippo’s mother Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro) knows this, and after her husband went missing at sea, wants to leave the confinement of her homeland and see new horizons. Filippo, a free-spirited young man who knows nothing beyond life on the island, is conflicted between modern notions of conduct and what his family has taught him; therefore he embodies the two divisive realities of his people.
Despite the overload of family drama nuances, Crialese utilizes the story to make poignant observations about this tight-knit society. Just as tourist season approaches and Giulietta and Filippo get ready to rent their house for some extra cash, the first of several arrivals by clandestine immigrants reaches the shores. Ernesto, who rescued some of them from drowning knowing that aiding them is a crime, hides a pregnant immigrant woman in the garage where Giulietta is staying, sparking up the tension even more.
Abstaining from drawing generic conclusions about who is responsible for these consequences of post-colonialism and globalization, the director delicately uses the dreamy scenery to juxtapose the two sides of the discussion. How does the world perceive dozens of tourists happily jumping from a boat into the water as they enjoy their first-world summer fun, compared to dozens of poverty-stricken Africans jumping from a boat to get to safety? Furthermore, how do the struggling Italians in the island perceive their situation in between the other two extremes?
Recently German director Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love dealt with the morality of affluent European women visiting African nations to buy sexual favors from the disadvantaged native men, another fantastically achieved piece about the complex relationship between the two worlds. However, Seidl’s cynic perception differs from Emanuele Crialese’s film, which is one of touching vulnerability and unfiltered emotion, without preaching any ideologies neither pro-immigration nor nationalist. Carefully as with the grace of past Italian filmmaking masters he captures simple beauty that resonates as pivotal, and he does so by approaching realism with a heavy dose of eerie imagery that makes the characters and setting seem locked in a bygone era.
This is passionate cinema at its best, and it is fueled by a vision fond of arranging transcendent images that encompass the crudest truth and the most redeeming kindness. In Filippo’s ambivalent mentality the audience can find the most lucid interpretation of the chaos he is in. He, just as his mother, or the African woman, or as Ernesto, is searching for a metaphorical “terraferma”, a solid ground on which to grow, a secure path where uncertainty is nonexistent. Said poetic search is never conclusive in Crialese’s film, but that lack of destination makes the fervor to seek it all the more powerful.
Final Verdict: It took a long time for the film to reach North American shores, now that it’s here one can only hope it finds an appreciative audience. Small yet engrossing, its apparent minuscule scope hides behind it profound lessons about each individual’s search for a brighter future in a tumultuous world, still it is clearly an utterly Italian film of the highest pedigree. Beautifully shot and acted with perfect naturalism Terraferma is a new Italian classic.