Venturing outside of the (often disappointing) Main Competition selection invariably pays dividends at Cannes, leading to the discovery of less hyped but often far more rewarding films. The only movie I managed to catch in the “Critics’ Week” (Semaine de la Critique) strand proved a case in point. Jonas Carpignano’s Meditarranea is an intense, intelligent, and ultimately deeply moving drama that gives a very human face to a most current and urgent contemporary crisis: that of African migration to Italy. A modest production over five years in development, the movie deserves to be huge.
The film’s focus is the experience of two men, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy), as they journey from Burkina Faso to Southern Italy, in search of employment opportunities. That gruelling journey isn’t the film’s main concern, however. Rather, Carpignano is more concerned with the development of the men’s lives after they arrive in Italy, the kind of reception they receive, and their contrasting attitudes to their new surroundings. The resourceful Ayiva, who has a daughter back home, achieves assimilation of sorts through a fruit-picking job and the sympathetic interest of his employer. Abas, in contrast, finds it considerably harder to adjust.
Carpignano is an alumnus of the 2012 Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab, a collaborator on Benh Zeitlin’s great Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), and the creator of two award-winning shorts, one of which provides the basis for Meditarranea. Here, he makes a thoroughly assured and distinctive feature debut. The film’s pluralised title hints at its complexity of perspective, as the writer/director explores the various degrees of kindness, condescension, and cruelty that his two protagonists face.
With a vaguely documentary feel and a sure sense of ambience aided by director of photography Wyatt Garfield’s excellent lensing, the influence of the films of the Dardennes brothers and Claire Denis is felt. Like much of Denis’s work, the movie even features a few key dance interludes, two scored to Rihanna tracks. After the unforgettable use of “Diamonds” in Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (which premiered at Cannes last year), there’s surely some academic work to be done on the employment of Rihanna songs as global cultural signifiers in current movies.
In addition, the film evokes other works about migration experience in Europe, from Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1982 Moonlighting (which memorably presented early ’80s London as a site of stealing, scavenging and skip-dumping for its Polish worker protagonists) to Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (2006), about the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster. But Mediterranea also possesses a humanist vision that places it in a lineage stretching back further. Indeed, as the film charts Ayiva and Abas’ struggles, and their contrasting responses to them, it’s nothing less than De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) that’s evoked.
Carpignano doesn’t sentimentalise his characters (one of Ayiva’s first acts when he arrives in Italy is to steal someone’s suitcase from a train), but he keeps us alert to their feelings and is sympathetic to the challenges they encounter. The movie doesn’t lack for some wry humour, either, especially in Ayiva’s interactions with a frighteningly streetwise kid (Pio Amato), and with his boss’s young daughter, whom he spies bopping to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”.
Just occasionally plot points are unclear: the movie very much begins in medias res, and aspects such as Ayiva’s involvement in the illegal smuggling operation that initiates the men’s journey could have been clarified. Furthermore, Abas’s character is not quite as satisfyingly developed as Ayiva’s, though both Seihon and Sy deliver excellent performances. Still, Mediterranea remains one of the strongest and most vital films presented at Cannes 2015, and its final third — moving from truly upsetting violence to one of the saddest Skype conversations the screen has ever seen — is perfectly judged. With stories of the sinking of migrant ships featuring with depressing frequency in the press at the moment, the film could scarcely be more timely. But Carpignano’s movie, in its bracing compassion and complexity, transcends mere “topicality” and goes far beyond what a news report might give us.