There Is No Firm Ground Upon Which to Stand in ‘Terraferma’

[12 March 2014]

By Jose Solis

A Modern Revisiting of a Classic Italian Tale

In his past films, writer/director Emanuele Crialese has shown interest in the process of migration to and from Italy, particularly in telling stories about people from the area of Sicily. In his 2006 film

Nuovomondo, he showed the experience of a turn of the century family as they set on a trip to America, via Ellis Island. In this film we see the humiliating practices that travelers arriving in the new world had to endure, but Crialese can’t help but evoke the hopefulness with which these travelers arrived, dreaming of the opportunities that awaited them.

This isn’t exactly the same case he presents us with in Terraferma, in which a boat carrying illegal African immigrants capsizes near the small Sicilian island of Linosa, forcing its inhabitants to reexamine their narrow views of the world. Unlike his stylized aesthetic work in Nuovomondo, Terraferma features shaky, more naturalistic camerawork that gives the film a sense of urgency. 

Terraferma begins in the open sea, where we see a fishing boat slowly go through its day until its peaceful routine is interrupted by the noise of the capsizing boat. We see how the fishermen, despite intending to help those less fortunate, see it best to ignore them and return to their town where they know they will be punished if they are discovered as having helped illegal aliens touch Italian soil. From the leathery, reddish skin of the fishermen, to the sense of poverty we get with just a few establishing shots (like the fishermen’s ragged clothes and their unkempt boat), it becomes almost impossible not to associate these people with the same fishermen we saw more than six decades ago in Luchino Visconti’s devastating

La Terra Trema , in which the fishermen were asked to work only to satisfy the whims of those who helped support their weak economy (i.e,. wealthy wholesalers who bought the fish at very low prices and kept the fishermen in a state of perpetual poverty).

In Crialese’s island the wholesalers have been replaced by tourists who arrive year after year, leading the fishermen to sell or remodel their boats, and change lifelong practices, in order to accommodate the people who have arrived to party and have fun. While in La Terra Trema the wholesalers were the clear villains, the same can’t be said for the tourists in Terraferma, who if anything are unknowing accomplices of the injustices being committed on the island.

In Visconti’s film, a fisherman played by Antonio Arcidiacono asks his family to mortgage their house and buy their own boat. He also suggests that the fishermen get together and create a union, but no one else in the island welcomes this modern way of thinking. They understand that if they follow this unconventional path they will be left alone in a community. In Crialese’s film, we meet Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) an elderly fishermen straight out of Visconti’s film who sticks to his traditions and refuses to sell his boat at the request of his grandson Filippo (Filippo Pucillo).

Filippo fears that they will become the most old fashioned family in the island, as his grandfather urges him not to lose his humanity in the face of economic adversity. This mindset leads him and his crew to become accomplices in the rescue of a pregnant woman on that boat full of immigrants (real life shipwreck survivor Timnit T.) and her very young son. Most of the film consists of a character study in which we see how Filippo must let go of his preconceptions about what life should be all about, as his grandfather exposes him to life’s cruel contrasts in such a way that we perceive this isn’t the first time he’s been through something like this.

If the plot is often at the risk of becoming didactic and moralistic (will the young man change his ambitious ways? Will the old man give up his traditions?), Crialese is a master at coming up with mesmerizing images which contrast how the horrors of social injustice become almost invisible when set against exotic locales. The director delivers his harshest opinions using the subtlest of touches; we see for example how a boat full of tourists waiting to dive en masse into the warm ocean, becomes almost a sadistic visual joke about the way in which the immigrants are crammed into small spaces and confined to inhuman travels in which their survival is never guaranteed.

Terraferma features breathtaking cinematography, which reminds us of how brutality and beauty are but two sides of the same coin. It’s a very intelligent film of contrasts, in which we are left pondering about the effects of globalization and the universality and relativity of morality and whether doing the right thing in a difficult situation is in fact the best option, when it could jeopardize one’s life.

Terraferma is presented in a pristine transfer by The Cohen Media Group. The Blu-ray includes a theatrical trailer as well as an informative, if not especially substantial, making-of featurette in which the cast and crew talk about the themes explored in the film.

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