Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014

On Terraferma

Italy’s Oscar Contender

By David Luhrssen
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The sense of place is palpable: the little fishing boat circled by squalling seagulls, bobbing on the blue shimmering Mediterranean on its way home to a tiny island off the coast of Sicily. But Terraferma, Italy’s entry in this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Picture, is about more than scenery. It’s a deeply human—and humane—story that recalls the spirit of those classic Italian neo-realist films of the 1940s—but with a contemporary story to tell.

At first, Terraferma is about a stubborn old man, the fishing boat skipper Ernesto, clinging to the old ways as they slip away. His son, a successful resort owner on the island, tells him his beloved fishing boat is worth more as scrap. Sell it and retire. His daughter-in-law (the widow of his other son, lost at sea three years before) wants to move to the mainland. There’s not enough work on the island or opportunities for her 19-year old son, Filippo. Only Filippo is willing to stand with granddad. And by the way, the fish are getting scarcer.

Soon enough, Terraferma turns into something other than The Old Man and the Mediterranean Sea when Ernesto and Filippo come across a raft piled high with starving African refugees making their way to Europe. Ernesto insists on helping them. It’s the law of the sea to rescue the shipwrecked, but there are new rules, immigration laws imposed by Italy’s government. The coast guard seizes Ernesto’s boat.

Between an influx of tourists and “illegals,” the island is losing its character. Directed with great compassion by Emanuele Crialese (Golden Door), Terraferma says that what’s best in human character stands a chance of persisting despite the head-spinning changes. Terraferma is out on Blu-ray and DVD.

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