The sun, the sand, the dolphins. The boat people from Africa, washed up on the beach.
In Emanuele Crialese's Terraferma, an idyllic Sicilian island - a resort for tourists, a place where men still make their living fishing, as did their fathers and their fathers before them - is transformed into a surreal seascape, as illegal immigrants from North Africa, jammed onto boats without food or water, try to make land, try to make it to the new country.
A sequel of sorts to Crialese's beautiful 2002 Cannes Festival winner, Respiro (the films are set on the same island, and Filippo Pucillo, who played the younger brother in Respiro, is back), Terraferma offers a sun-splashed meditation on compassion, tradition, tolerance, and generational change.
For Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio), the gray-bearded fisherman who takes his old wooden boat out to sea every day, there is a sailor's oath: Never leave a drowning person at sea.
But the Italian Coast Guard does not want locals pulling refugees from the water - and Ernesto runs afoul of a by-the-book officer. He and Filippo (Pucillo) have rescued a pregnant Ethiopian (Timnit T.) and her son, and are hiding them. Filippo's young mother, Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro), is reluctant to harbor the illegals. The family has rented the house to a trio of tourists, and undocumented Africans were not among the selling points.
Terraferma, like Respiro and Crialese's American immigrant film The Golden Door, fuses neo-realism with a more allegorical approach. The character of Filippo - now 20 but still naive, childish - is pivotal. Unlike his grandfather Ernesto, Filippo is easily swayed, and when one of the renters - Maura (Martina Codecasa), a blond girl from Milan - takes a liking to him, Ernesto invites her on a stealthy midnight cruise. Needless to say, the romantic boat ride ends badly.
As for Terraferma, it ends with a promising sense of mystery, of hope.
Terraferma *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Emanuele Crialese. With Filippo Pucillo, Donatella Finocchiaro, Mimmo Cuticchio, and Martina Codecasa. In Italian with subtitles. Distributed Cohen Media Group.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.
Parent's guide: R (nudity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Bourse