One night in the mid-1960s, I happened to catch Vittorio De Sica's 1948 film The Bicycle Thief on the BBC — and fell in love with Italian neo-realism on the spot.
The plight of a post-World War II family searching for a lost bike that's crucial to their survival felt achingly more tangible to this sheltered British teenager than my own suburban ennui. I gobbled up the rest of the retrospective: Visconti, Rossellini, early Antonioni and Fellini. The visceral passion of these tales of poverty-stricken but tight communities, dreaming and striving for better futures for their children, gripped me.
The men were virile and worried; the women came indomitable and blowsily maternal; the kids were scrappy little survivors getting by under the radar of the law. And those Sicilians! You could practically taste the salt on their skins and in their tousled black curls.
Though it was enormously influential on post-War cinema throughout Europe, neo-realism was all but dead by the mid-'50s. Now it's back, lovely as ever and plenty sentimental, but updated — updated, in one recent example, to reflect some pretty hairy current events as they impinge on a small Sicilian island community. Directed by Emanuele Crialese, who made the charming 2002 trifle Respiro, the ravishing Terraferma sinks its roots deep into neo-realism, only with an overlay of magical realism.
The misspelling of the title is a pointed one for the beleaguered three generations of a family on a beautiful island — the film was shot in Lampedusa — off the coast of Italy's mainland. Grandfather Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) is enraged by the government's efforts to shut down the ancient fishing operation that has provided for his family for decades. Not so his widowed daughter-in-law, Giulietta, who's played by the raven-haired Donatella Finocchiaro, whose earthy practicality is a clear nod to the great Anna Magnani. Giulietta sees the writing on the wall, and yearns for escape to the mainland and a better future for her son Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), a blond, tousled and delectably shirtless hothead who has no idea what he wants, but goes along with his mother's efforts to get into the tourism business.
The family's precarious survival and its harmony are further compromised by the arrival offshore of refugees fleeing war and worse in Africa. When a heavily pregnant Ethiopian woman gives birth in Giulietta's home, the family is torn between the law of the sea, which compels fisherman to save anyone in peril on the ocean, and the laws of the land, which forbid their rescue.
Amid the internal warfare that follows, compounded by an appalling misstep on the part of one family member, an abyss opens between old world and new. The plight of the Africans presents a moral dilemma that could hardly be more timely, no matter where it is the dispossessed must choose between turning on each other or standing together against those who would keep them down or out.
Crialese is a sentimentalist at heart, but a fine one, and his compassion for the wretched of the earth is thrillingly amped by the movie's ecstatic imagery. Like his neo-realist forebears before him, the director turns everyday activities and furtive acts — tending to a rotting boat, beating desperate refugees away from a tiny vessel, the tender ablutions of those same refugees on the shore — into a theater of danger, cruelty and sensual delight.
In the movie's opening scenes a boy on a boat, silhouetted against the waning light, jigs up and down out of sheer joy at being alive. At the close, a boy entering manhood chugs out to sea in a different boat, carrying precious cargo. He's no more than a pinprick on the vast expanse of night-black ocean, and we don't know where he's going — only that this act of expiation may ferry his passengers into their future, and carry him on into his own. (Recommended)