The New York Times
“Mediterranea” is one of the earliest in what is almost certain to be a deluge of films about 21st-century migrants risking everything to seek a better life in Europe. The first feature film directed and written by Jonas Carpignano, it follows the harrowing odyssey of two close friends from Burkina Faso in West Africa who cross the Mediterranean to settle in Italy.
Ayiva (the first-time actor Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy) are proud, strong-willed men who have few illusions that the journey will be easy, but they are still unprepared for the severity of the voyage. Arriving at their Libyan departure point after an arduous trek through the desert during which they are robbed by bandits, they discover that their guide expects them to pilot a fragile, overcrowded vessel by themselves.
After the boat capsizes in a storm, they are rescued and dropped off in the Calabria region on the toe of the Italian Peninsula. The movie almost perversely plays down the rigors of the journey, which could be a movie in itself. It lands them in Europe as quickly as possible, the better to concentrate on the social tensions they encounter once they arrive.
The two are greeted enthusiastically by one of Ayiva’s relatives, who leads them to a makeshift camp of shacks and tents on the outskirts of Rosarno. Although granted a three-month permit to stay, they face a wary reception from the Italians.
In the hands of a Hollywood studio, the story would be a natural platform for a stirring, picturesque melodrama with a bleeding heart. But Mr. Carpignano, who covered the same territory in his 2012 short film, “A Chjàna,” has adopted a low-key neorealist style, using hand-held cameras that intensify its ground-level perspective. The character-driven film focuses on the day-to-day experiences of people struggling to find a foothold in a hostile land that throws up nearly insurmountable barriers to assimilation. After their three-month permit expires, they face the prospect of having to get jobs to secure residency permits, but getting a job requires documentation that they don’t have.
To avoid immediate deportation, Ayiva and Abas have no choice but to pick oranges for subsistence wages. Although Ayiva manages to suppress his fury over the petty injustices and humiliations they endure, the arrogant, petulant Abas has little tolerance for frustration and shirks responsibility when he can get away with it. To survive, women who’ve migrated have little choice but to prostitute themselves, a choice the movie barely acknowledges.
The dramatic climax is a re-enactment of a spontaneous rampage in 2010 by hundreds of migrant workers on the streets of Rosarno. Wielding metal pipes, they smash and set fire to cars. The police response is swift and brutal, and Abas is seriously injured.
“Mediterranea” is impressive for the degree to which it lends its characters complex human dimensions and gives equal weight to everyone’s joys and frustrations. Well-intentioned films about African immigrants tend to portray them as exotic outsiders with pure souls who are grateful for any largess. Neither Ayiva nor Abas could be described as a saintly innocent. Ayiva, who communicates with his African family via Skype, is a likable, principled man, but he is not a naïf. Adept at digital technology, he sends his 7-year-old daughter an MP3 player for which he barters with Pio (Pio Amato), a fast-talking teenage wheeler-dealer and the film’s most vivid minor character.
The sentimental stereotype of primitive Africans agog over Western technology is nowhere to be found. Everyone dances to the music of Rihanna, which is heard on the soundtrack.
Ayiva is invited for dinner at the home of his boss Rocco (Davide Schipilliti), who is so admiring of his dedication that he finds him extra jobs. But there are limits to Rocco’s good will. When Ayiva asks Rocco to help him get working papers, there is no response. This calm, hardheaded film never sacrifices its toughness for a swooning, misty-eyed moment of hope.
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