This rich, observational, ripped-from-the-headlines story about the plight of fruit-pickers in southern Italy demands a wide audience
Rarely has the phrase “ripped from the headlines” seemed so literal. As the lights went down before the world premiere of Mediterranea in the Cannes’ Critics’ Week sidebar, I folded away that day’s paper, the front page of which detailed the EU’s latest strategy for handling the African immigration surge. When we first meet our lead characters, Ayiva and Abas, they are in Algeria, having left Burkina Faso, trying, with bands of others, to get to the Libyan shore by foot so that they can catch a boat to Italy. If a movie as rich and understanding as Mediterranea suddenly appeared every time we read about a difficult issue in the paper, maybe all of the world’s problems could be solved.
We don’t learn much about Ayiva and Abas at first, other than that they are young men with a contact somewhere on the other side of the sea. Abas is excited by those photos of European girls that his friend posts on Facebook. Ayiva seems more concerned with earning money. As their caravan grows, so do the points of origin and number of languages. After a death-defying sea crossing involving Arab bandits and storms, they are picked up by immigration in southern Italy. Given three months to find some sort of contracted work before applying for documented status, they make their way to a cold, wet tent community and strategise.
Ayiva is a good person. You know this because actor Koudous Seihon’s eyes tell you so. This doesn’t mean he’s above a little theft when the opportunity presents itself. He is, after all, not used to the cold and could use a new sweater. He eventually finds work: the old staple of symbolically picking fruit. The boss at first seems cruel, but Ayiva catches his eye when he remains cool during an accident. He’s soon given additional tasks, gets welcomed into the house, and starts making decent money.
Abas (Alassane Sy) doesn’t adjust so well. It’s not as if he falls in with a bad crowd – indeed, a scene of carousing, shot in a Cassavetes-ish style, is one of the more uplifting moments in the film. It’s just that he isn’t as focused on success as Ayiva. This could be because Ayiva is sending much of his earnings home to his daughter and sister. His boss has a daughter, too, of about the same age. They are from two different worlds, but dancing to pop songs is something girls do on both sides of the economic divide.
Writer-director Jonas Carpignano, who was raised in Rome and New York, has a knack for finding the drama in what for other directors would be desultory scenes. Best is the mix of gratitude and annoyance the migrants feel towards a do-gooder providing free meals who makes everyone take off their hats and call her “Mama Africa”. You know they want to bolt, but then again, everyone wants dinner. It’s one of those situations where you need to settle on what’s smart, not what feels right. Ayiva’s whole arc follows this tug-of-war, to a conclusion that is visualised in a creative and colourful manner.
Most of Mediterranea is observational, not too heavy on plot. The documentary-style shooting works in its favour, but when the third act gears up, there is a jolt of unexpected violence. There is antagonism between the migrant community, the police and some rabble-rousing locals looking for a fight. Suddenly we’re in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and while it isn’t beyond believability, it seems a little out of left-field considering the storyline thus far.
Or it could just be that I had my head in the sand, like so many seem to do about this looming issue.
Read the article on The Guardian