Italian director Emanuele Crialese wants to have his cake and eat it too. His films usually marry a small-scale, intimately personal story with wider social questions, micro and macro brought together in a "shotgun marriage" that doesn't really do justice to either. Terraferma, awarded the Special Jury Prize in Venice 2011, is no exception, and infuriatingly so, since its wedding of coming-of-age story to indignant problem picture is often awkward, leaving the viewer asking whether it wouldn't have been better to have chosen either one or the other.

     Set in the same Sicilian island of Linosa where Mr. Crialese also set his breakthrough feature, 2002's Respiro, Terraferma follows the coming-of-age of 20-year old Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), son and grandson of fishermen who wants nothing more than to follow the family tradition even though it no longer guarantees a good life. His mother Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro) wants a different future for him, one that he begins to embrace as they rent out their home to tourists during the Summer, but everything changes when his grandfather Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) saves illegal boat people from drowning in the Mediterranean and his boat is confiscated by the authorities. Torn between simple compassion and the rigidity of laws, as the family reluctantly shelters the young Ethiopian woman (Timnit T.) and her newborn baby they saved from drowning, Filippo must navigate the first shoals of adulthood.

     This is where everything collapses: Mr. Crialese trades in overly simplistic generalizations - the villains, such as the fiscal policeman that impounds the boat, are cartoonishly evil or money-grubbing, the heroes are modest and humble, the immigrants saints dreaming of a better life - and unwilling to turn his characters into fully rounded human beings. There's a feeling that the coming-of-age story by itself would have made a much better, more nuanced film, and that the social agenda involved (the film was supported by the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees) is shoehorned to the forefront. The ambiguous ending is also a bizarre cop-out after all that's come before - if Mr. Crialese wanted us so evidently to take sides in the dilemmas involved, it makes no sense to not offer any closure to the story he is telling. There's no denying that the director's heart is in the right place, but the end result is a little bit like Filippo's dilemma: a mess.

Filippo Pucillo, Donatella Finocchiaro, Mimmo Cuticchio, Giuseppe Fiorello, Timnit T.; Claudio Santamaria.
     Director, Emmanuele Crialese; screenplay, Mr. Crialese, Vittorio Moroni, from a story by Mr. Crialese; cinematography, Fabio Cianchetti (colour, processing by Cinecittà, widescreen); music, Franco Piersanti; designer, Paolo Bonfini; costumes, Eva Coen; editor, Simona Paggi; producers, Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz (Cattleya in association with Rai Cinema, in co-production with Babe Films and France 2 Cinéma), Italy/France, 2011, 90 minutes.
     Screened: DVD screener, Lisbon, April 20th 2012. 


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