Film Review: Terraferma

Beautiful, superbly acted Italian-French co-production set on a small tradition-bound Italian fishing island that has become an unintended destination for African refugees stranded in the nearby waters. A rich emotional journey for filmgoers.

Emanuele Crialese goes macro with spectacular scenery and micro with a gripping drama about some well-meaning, struggling island folk confronted with African asylum-seekers struggling to reach the Italian mainland that will be their “terra firma.” Also a poignant consideration of traditional ways and so-called “progress” touted to improve things, Terraferma is a nostalgic type of high-quality foreign drama that, in the old days, would have “stuck” on screens or become classic in some sense. In today’s world, suffice it to say that the film will grip viewers seeking entertainment with substance and style.

The plot is fairly straightforward but emotions run deep, twists surprise and provoke thought, and stakes reach life-or-death proportions. Filippo (Filippo Pucillo) is a 20-year-old islander who lost his fisherman father to the sea but continues the family tradition of fishing for a living with ailing grandfather Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) on their old boat off their tiny island near Sicily.

But big changes are on the horizon and in the waters. Filippo’s uncle Nino (Giuseppe Fiorello) is intent on moving with the times and pressures his nephew and father Ernesto to junk the boat, calling his dad “the last one doing this work” and his nephew “rudderless” with no real career in sight. Nino wants his 70-year-old father to retire and his nephew to provide boat tours for the increasing number of tourists visiting the island.

Filippo and Ernesto face harsh realities when they discover African refugees stranded in the waters and their boat suffers serious damage and must be moved to dry dock for repairs. On Nino’s side to abandon fishing for the tourist trade is Filippo’s mother Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro), who even moves their living quarters from a spacious few rooms to the garage so they can rent their home to guests.

Filippo goes with the family flow. When a large ferry from the mainland disgorges hundreds of visitors on the island, he enthusiastically hawks their home as a perfect rental and their boat, not exactly yet seaworthy, as an added amenity.

The biggest wave of change comes by way of Sara (Timnit T.), a pregnant African woman and her son, whom Filippo rescues at sea and moves surreptitiously into his and his mother’s garage quarters. Giulietta, at first hostile, warms to the woman and, eventually, her newborn.

Meanwhile, Filippo has wrangled a trio of young visitors to rent their home. He takes a fancy to Maura (Martina Codecasa), the lone female traveling from Milan with friends Marco (Filippo Scarafia) and Stefano (Pierpaolo Spollon), but the class divide is clear. And Filippo’s harrowing nighttime incident with the young woman on the water will propel him in new directions.

Most menacing are the island police, especially embodied by ultra-determined officer Finanziere (Claudio Santamaria), who aggressively tries to ferret out the illegals rumored to be hidden on the island. Maybe suspecting Filippo’s family, he stonewalls his boat-tour business, claiming there’s no permit.

As Filippo, his grandfather and mother sense the authorities closing in on the illegals they’re hiding, the family, including the once-reluctant Giulietta, embark upon a plan to help Sara, her new baby and son escape to the mainland. A close call leads to unexpected events. And a final shot that is profoundly haunting.

Depicting the clash of a family’s tradition-bound moral imperatives with the new laws and tourist-driven ways of the land, Terraferma is a feast for eyes and ears as well as food for thought.