Like the neorealist classics that have inspired them, Emanuele Crialese’s films tend to mix gritty immersion with folkloric intimations. Terraferma, the Italian director’s fourth feature, opens at the bottom of the ocean, the camera looking up at the undulating surface as a fishing ship releases its nets. A complete reversal occurs with the film’s final image, an aerial shot looking down at the same boat from what could be described as a bird’s-eye view, or possibly something more heavenly. The moral decisions made by the characters over the course of the story plot the distance between these two camera positions—a path in which Crialese’s customary visual vibrancy is met with unwelcome hints of sanctimonious paternalism.
Set on the Sicilian island of Linosa, the narrative hinges on clashes between tradition and modernity. A small fishing community built on rocky, volcanic landscapes, Linosa is a place where lengthy funeral processions for lost sons are the norm, and old salts still gather to talk about “the law of the sea.” Come summer time, however, crowds of tourists pour into town, turning sallow beaches into teeming miniature resorts and docked vessels into party cruises. Making the stand for old-fashioned customs is Neptune-bearded seafarer Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio), whose decaying boat seems to embody generations of obsolescent values. Better equipped for modern times are his son Nino (Giuseppe Fiorello), who organizes tourist activities, and his widowed daughter, Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro), who has her eyes set on a new life on the mainland. Stuck in the middle is Giulietta’s 20-year-old son, Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), whose pleasure-seeking ways are further complicated when a group of shipwrecked, undocumented African immigrants make their way to the island. When an Ethiopian woman (Timnit T.) and her newborn child is given shelter in his mother’s garage, and the authorities put pressure on anyone who helps the refugees, Filippo finds himself facing a slew of ethical quandaries and redemptive options.
Closer in scale to Crialese’s 2002 breakout film Respiro than to his 2006 transatlantic saga Golden Door, Terraferma is no less tactile a portrait of Mediterranean rhythms and tensions. Whether it’s the weight of a rusted propeller, the smell of fish dumped in protest outside a police outpost, or the shimmering of sunlight and sea, Crialese and DP Fabio Cianchetti aim for the visceral at every turn. At his best, the director imbues beauty with a sense of imbalance: in the film’s most striking sequence, a moonlit boat ride with Filippo and a tawny city girl (Martina Codecasa) gives way to the abrupt appearance of countless desperate refugees in the water.
As the protagonist’s solidarity is put to the test, however, Terraferma slides from detail-rich fable to Important Issue statement, its symbolism growing leaden and its characters shedding their eccentricities for masks of nobility. (Think of the Dardenne Brothers’ La Promesse, but with most thorny dilemmas neatly flattened and folded.) “The terra ferma is waiting for us,” Ernesto intones to his family like a grizzled prophet. Crialese wants to steer their journey toward spiritual deliverance, offering a closing vision that evokes an F.W. Murnau ghost ship; instead, the results come perilously close to suggesting a Stanley Kramer ship of fools.