Toronto audiences may be familiar with Emanuele Crialese’s Terraferma (Dry Land), as it premiered at TIFF last year and was Italy’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards. If you didn’t catch it, this Wednesday evening is your opportunity. It’s a film that manages to cast a critical eye on one of the most emotional contemporary struggles of our time, that of the question of illegal immigrants and our national and personal responses to their presence and their role. Movies have an incredible ability to address that most basic human right to live with dignity, and Terraferma embraces this challenge.
Italian films do the isolated village drama incredibly well. The beauty of them, and often the tragedy, is the instant dynamic that is set up between the close-knit network of characters. The landscape, too, is a character, and you’re watching it the way you’re watching each person, for its behaviour and reactions and impulses. This works particularly well when dialogue recedes and the score takes centre-stage, bringing the shoreline to life.
Initially, one’s heart goes out to the central family of the story, even before the narrative moves forward and integrates the plight of the Ethiopian refugees in their midst. Filippo and his grandfather, Ernesto, are happy in the reef village of Linoso but struggle to make a living from their fishing boat after Filippo’s father dies. The young man, however, is close with his mother, Gulietta, and metaphorically tosses and turns over her need to see him expand his horizons and leave the family home to gain new skills. Before a decision is made, Filippo becomes distracted by Gulietta’s summer project – taking in tourists and showing them around the island – which she believes will sustain them now that they can no longer rely on an income in the fishing industry. Donatella Finocchiaro, who I feel gives the most arresting performance of the cast as Gulietta, sees her own turmoil mirrored in that of the pregnant Ethiopian woman she takes in. Her discomfort turns to generosity, perhaps with the knowledge that while she has lost her true love, there is still an opportunity for this young refuge to be reunited with her husband waiting in Turin.
Each choice made by the characters in Terraferma is jarring and a complete game-changer. Ultimately, it is Filippo who shocks his family with a turn of events over which he finally has control. He represents a sense of moral continuity which the old guard of the fishing village believed had disappeared. You may not laugh more than a couple of times throughout the 88 minutes, but you’ll likely cry a little cathartically for all that is lost and then gained in this story. Hats off to Crialese for creating a serious drama with zero verbosity or faux-grit; this is a genuine tale of the power of strangers to move into our hearts and become people we might remember forever.
Terraferma screens at the Italian Contemporary Film Festival on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 6:00 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King St West, Toronto) in Cinema 1. For more info, visit icff.ca/terraferma.