What happens to an island fishing village in the Mediterranean when the only things the Italian fishermen seem to be pulling from the sea are drowned or near-drowned African refugees? The economic, cultural, and personal effects of this shift shape Emanuele Crialese’s story of stark choices and uncertain futures. In this elegantly structured film, everybody’s concept of home is in flux, their eyes fixed either stubbornly on the ground beneath their feet or hopefully on the horizon.
The aging fisherman Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) keeps focused on the present. He and his grandson Filippo (Filippo Pucillo) ply the waters with the joyful determination of those who feel sure of their place in the universe. In a haunting opening scene, Ernesto’s boat is damaged by the floating wreckage of a ship, the Arabic writing on the side suggesting it was transporting refugees and now lies on the ocean floor. Ernesto is startled when his forward-thinking son Nino (Giuseppe Fiorello) decides he’ll make more money demolishing the boat than continuing to fish. More change looms when Ernesto’s doctor tells him to go to the mainland for treatment of his heart condition Nuts, he tells them both.
Sort of. It’s a tribute to Crialese’s spare, intelligent script that he doesn’t saddle Ernesto with any “I was born on this island and I’ll die on this island” nonsense; his wizened eyes and patriarchal beard say it all. His refusal to leave the island ensures he’s around when a routine fishing trip turns up a couple of rafts’ worth of desperate Africans, for whom serves as a moral defender. This as his relatives are too tied up in their day-to-day struggles initially to take a hard look at their own actions. Ernesto breaks the law twice by pulling refugees out of the sea and then not alerting the police to their presence.
He’s opposed by Nino, consumed by his tour boat and beach bar and obsessed with making as much money as he can from tourists in the two short months of the season. Hat’s not to say Nino doesn’t have his reasons for seeming callous: like his sister Giuletta (Donatella Finocchiaro), he’s still grieving over their brother, lost at sea three years before. The two of them want nothing to do with Ernesto’s old ways. Just as Nino hustles for euros, Giuletta plants herself on the dock when the tourist boat arrives and touts her house as cheap vacation lodging, while she and Filippo sleep in the garage. She’s duly horrified when Ernesto hides a pregnant refugee and her young son in the garage with them.
In between the new and the old stands Filippo, the none-too-bright 20-year-old who thinks of Ernesto in strictly heroic terms and shows no desire ever to leave the island. He’s an impulsive innocent, wanting to do the right thing but lacking both Ernesto’s innate sense of right and wrong and the intellectual ability to do the ethical calculus on his own. During a moonlight swim with a young tourist girl, Filippo spots dozens of refugees frantically swimming towards their boat. He is faced with deciding whether to abandon them to drown or let them potentially capsize the boat.
Crialese doesn’t lay out easy choices for anybody. Ernesto might declaim the importance of the law of the sea (never abandoning a ship or person in need) over the carabinieri’s edicts against offering any assistance to refugees, but his decisions come with a price. Nino and Giuletta might seem to have hardened hearts, but it isn’t as though they can easily afford the penalties that their moral behaviors would bring. If their island isn’t nearly so decimated as the world from which the Africans flee, still, it is afflicted with poverty. Fabio Cianchetti’s sparkling cinematography makes for one postcard-ready scene after another, but the film doesn’t neglect the dark uncertainties that keep interrupting the spectacle.
In drawing parallels between the comparatively wealthy, but ever uncertain, Italians and the frantically poor Africans, Terraferma doesn’t offer cheap relativism. (The film includes one especially pointed moment of irony, when we see a party boat of tourists dancing in slow motion; the deck looks as overcrowded as the precarious refugee rafts Ernesto spotted earlier.) Everyone here has a lot to lose, but it’s the refugees who have the most to gain.