Little White Lies
This stirring Italian migration tale is one of the stand-outs of the Critics' Week strand.
If recent editions of the Cannes Film Festival have taught us anything, it’s this: do not underestimate Rihanna’s importance to the African diaspora. Just don’t do it. In Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, the Barbadian pop star’s hit song 'Diamonds' was repurposed as an anthem of self-empowerment by a group of marginalised black girls living on the outskirts of Paris.
In Jonas Carpignano’s similarly powerful Mediterranea, Rihanna’s music is a ubiquitous testament to the hybridisation of global culture, her sultry singing voice – heard over social media, at parties, and as a handful of different ringtones – underscoring a modern world that remains irrevocably fractured despite growing smaller with each day.
Mediterranea begins outside the West African nation of Burkina Faso, where best friends Ayiva and Abas (Koudous Seihon and Alassane Sy, respectively) have just left their lives behind in order to claim their share of the hope promised by the world north of the border. While their paths soon merge with those fleeing from Syria, emigrants from the poor but comparatively stable country of Burkina are motivated less by threat than by opportunity – Ayiva hopes to provide a better life for his young daughter, and he sends money home to her and her mother whenever he can.
Of course, where you’ve come from doesn’t make much of a difference once everyone is huddled together on a flimsy rubber raft for the death-defying voyage from Libya to Italy. It isn’t exactly a pleasure cruise, but Ayiva and Abas survive the trip, and eventually wind up in a southern Italian shantytown, where they find menial work in the orange groves of Calabria.
Despite the apparent topicality of this particular journey, Mediterranea is a classic immigration story, and Carpignano is careful to ensure that the bracing specificity of his film’s narrative details (a pivotal Skype conversation, an early murder at the hands of potential jihadists) don’t overwhelm the historical precedent that backgrounds Aviya and Abas’ gamble for a better tomorrow.
Carpignano, whose bi-racial heritage bridges the divide that separates Aviya from his child, commands this material like someone who’s survived it – you’d never guess that he went to Wesleyan (where he met Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin, who re-teams with musician Dan Romer for this film’s effective score). The remarkable success of Carpignano’s debut feature, which he adapted from his prizewinning short, can be largely attributed to how well the film locates its characters in their migration – Seihon’s touching and acutely aware performance transmutes the Burkina native’s off-camera odyssey to the screen in such a way that his character never feels purely representative. That the noble purpose of Aviya’s trip is complicated by a reasonable dash of self-interest only makes him more compelling, contributing to the a sense of intimacy that’s fostered by Carpignano’s roving close-ups (which seem to share the characters’ lack of foresight as to what might happen next).
On the other hand, the personal connection we feel to Aviya is balanced by the tedium of his work, the generic emotional beats of his encounters (i.e. the bond he forms his boss’ young daughter, who reminds Aviya of his own), and his pointedly archetypical friendship with Abas, who provides a roguish foil for the protagonist’s decent determinism. Privileging the integrity of Aviya’s experience over the suspense of watching it unfold, Carpignano never forgets that there are only so many variables available to the story of a people who are starved for opportunities.
“How does he know if we’re going in the right direction?” Someone asks of Aviya’s guide as the band of refugees and pioneers make their way towards the Libyan border. The answer: he picks a point in the distance and moves towards it. When he gets there, he looks at the horizon, picks another spot, and repeats the process. This is how people have been doing it for thousands of years, and this is how they always will. Rihanna makes it sound so easy.