Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Apr 24, 2012 5:36 am 
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Trouble going and coming for an Italian island

Crialese's new film Terraferma focuses on the Italian island of Lampedusa southwest of Sicily, where fishing and tourism are the chief livelihoods, both under threat. Fishing is losing its commercial viability while tourism, though it has been on the increase, is threatened by the constant arrival of desperate African illegals by sea.

Focusing on a family, particularly the discontented mother Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro) and her immature 20-year-old son Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), Terraferma is touching and disturbing but tries to do too much. The Roman-born, Sicilian descent filmmaker seems to feel obligated to focus equally on family conflict, local financial ills, coming-of-age turmoil, legal pressures from the government, clashes between public law and the seaman's code, the effect of young posh tourists from the north, and the heartrending plight of African illegals who are allowed to drown or sent back home. Dealing with all these topics at once only lessens the emotional and artistic impact of the whole. Despite some memorable moments, Terraferma's too many threads make it wind up feeling like several episodes of a TV series.

Things begin when granddad Ernesto (impressively bearded Mimmo Cuticchio) and Filippo find their decrepit fishing boat disable after it runs into the broken pieces of a small vessel from Libya and its propeller is bent. Back on the island, the recently widowed Giulietta wants to emigrate to the mainland, but in the meantime clears out and repaints the house to rent it to summer tourists and moves herself and Filippo into the garage next door.

Filippo becomes enamored of the girl from Milan who rents the house with male pals from Arezzo and Padova, whom he tries to entertain. But Filippo's clumsy efforts to assert himself and expand his horizons are soon overwhelmed by bigger issues when the famly fishing boat is overrun by Afrians overflowing a small raft. The Coast Guard advises Ernesto to stay in he area but ignore the Africans, but the law of the sea requires Ernesto to save a pregnant Ethiopian mother (Timnit T.) and her small boy (Rubel Tsegay Abraha), whom the family hides, much to the disapproval of Giulietta, especially when the mother immeditely gives birth. But Giulietta is ambivalent, angered by the Ethiopians but also protective of them. Meanwhile the family tries to keep all these hassles from the three young renters of their house.

The family's attempt to juggle their various conflicting priorities could serve as a metaphor for Crialese's own dilemma in groping to deal with multiple issues in his movie. There is the drama of the older men's dying fishing trade and issues over the boat's licensing, which heightens their conflict with the Coast Guard over treatment of the illegals. There is Filippo's sometimes touching coming-of-age drama -- and it is Filippo who comes closest to owning the film. Sicilian-born and an actual Lampedusa resident, the actor Filippo Pucillo contributes strong presence and authenticity (if not much subtlety) to the movie and he has the local patois down. There is the pathos of the illegals themselves, heightened (to excess) by the mother, headed, she hopes, for Turin to be reunited after five years with her husband, but saddled now with an illegitimate baby. There is the conflict over whether to save Africans or let them drown and save tournism and a little bit of the fishing trade. Even the young tourists get their moment when there is focus on the three young people temporarily renting the family house. An attempt to smuggle the three Ethiopians off the island becomes the final focus, but it's several desperate acts by the confused and immature Filippo that contain the most drama.

Jay Weissberg of Variety lays out the shortcomings of this tumultuous but disappointing movie frankly in his review's lead paragraph: "A changing world drives Italian fishermen to leave their island at the same time African immigrants risk their lives to get there in the unchallenging social drama Terraferma," Weissberg writes. "The kind of pic that lays everything out nice and neat so auds can easily digest the arguments and feel good about themselves for not wanting people to die," he went on, "this is a well-made movie with no pretension but also no crying need to be at a major film festival. Arthouse auds expecting something along the lines of Emanuele Crialese's previous works, especially the superb Golden Door will be disappointed."

"Nice visuals, nice story, nice everything -- but sometimes nice just isn't enough," Weissberg concludes. He comments that Fabio Cianchetti's "lensing is always superficially attractive" -- one longs for something more. Crialese's command of the atmosphere and flavorful personalities of the island is undeniable, but the movie never takes hold of a distinctive style or mood -- as Golden Door, most definitely did. Terraferma might be contrasted with Philippe Lioret's 2009 Welcome (Rendez-Vous 2010), another treatment of the European illegal immigrant issue. Welcome focuses on a boy from the Middle East and the French local (Vincent Lindon) who hides and protects him and tries to help him go north without detection from the authorities. The issues are strong and clear and the movie really sings because Lioret keeps it simple, focused on the two characters. Terraferma is not selective enough. Its sometimes in-your-face closeups underline its capacity to grab our attention but not to hold it for long on any one thing.

Terraferma debuted at Vencie and has won various awards. It received three Donatello nominations, Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress. It was Italy's candidate for the 2011 Best Foreign Oscar (not nominated). It was shown at Toronto and over a dozen other festivals. It has been released in half a dozen countries, including France, where it received moderate reviews (Allociné 3.2). The lively treatment of serious social issues arouses favorable comment, but the all-over-the-map treatment leads to the inevitable denurrals. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival (April 19-May 3, 2012). SFIFF showings were April 21 at the Kabuki Cinemas and April 23 at the Film Society Cinema.

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