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Monday, April 22, 2013

Cargo of Hope?

Startling images from UWM’s Italian Film Festival

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Spectacular images of the Berlin Wall being hammered into bits for souvenirs were seen across the world, but the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe resulted in many other memorable visuals. In Italy, some of the most unforgettable images were of a rusty old freighter, covered with thousands of refugees, which straggled from Albania to the port of Bari in 1991. Albania had been the North Korea of the Balkans, a resolutely isolated and paranoid state whose unrepentant Stalinist leader, Enver Hoxha, harbored mad dreams of utopia. Hoxha had been dead several years before the Berlin Wall fell, and his successors were unable to fence out the unrest—the hope for change—that swept across Eastern Europe as the ’80s turned into the ’90s.

The sudden outflow of Albanians by sea is covered in La Nave Dolce (The Human Cargo), a visually inventive Italian documentary coupling archival footage with interviews with Albanian refugees and the Italians who dealt with them. The interviewees are displayed either full frontal against a white backdrop or through a narrow band against the whiteness, encompassing only the eyes of the speaker and his or her moving mouth. The well-paced true story begins with the arrival of the freighter Vlora from Cuba with a load of sugar. In what seems to have been a spontaneous outburst that spread like a cough in a dry, crowded space, hundreds and finally thousands of Albanians dropped what they were doing and raced for the ship. Dramatic footage shows many of them swimming and climbing up mooring ropes. Others clambered up cranes and jumped onto the Vlora’s deck. The captain had no choice but to obey the mob and set his course for Italy.

Because Albanians had been able to receive Italian TV broadcasts, their western neighbor looked like a promised land of abundance and freedom to a populace that had experienced only rationing and fear. But Italy was unprepared for the unheralded arrival of thousands of Albanians. The refugees were temporarily confined to a stadium, where conditions resembled the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.

The human stories are front and center throughout La Nave Dolce, which ends with a reminder that refugees continue to pour into Italy. Immigration is as much an issue there as in the U.S., with Albanians often in a status similar to America’s Latino migrants.

La Nave Dolce screens at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 27, as part of this year’s Italian Film Festival. The festival runs April 26-28 at UW-Milwaukee’s Union Theatre. All showings are free. For a complete schedule, go to italianfilmfests.org/milwaukee.