Terraferma straddles beauty and harshness

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      Starring Filippo Puccilo. Unrated.

      The effects of pollution and corporate overfishing are crushing the spirits of proud, seafaring folk on the tiny Sicilian island of Linosa, where style-minded Italian director Daniele Crialese also set his myth-laden Respiro. In Terraferma—which arrives as part of the first Vancouver Italian Film Festival—Filippo Pucillo, who played part of a family sailing from Italy to old New York in Crialese’s Golden Door, plays 20-year-old Filippo, who lost his father at sea a few years earlier. That doesn’t keep him from clinging to the diminishing rewards of fishing with grandfather Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio), a biblical-style patriarch with no discernable use for the bible.

      Filippo’s mother, Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro), and his mercantile uncle (Beppe Fiorello) want the old man to sell the boat for scrap and start catering to Eurotourists attracted to the island’s harsh but unexploited beauty. They’re not the only ones heading for this Mediterranean oasis; African refugees, fleeing war and famine, are paddling, rafting, and swimming their way to Europe, and a less-than-friendly welcome.

      When Ernesto rescues some drowning refugees, local police—presented here as blandly fascistic—seize his boat. But they don’t know that he’s hiding a pregnant Ethiopian woman (played by newcomer Timnit T.) and her small son at home. Giulietta wants them out, pronto, but when the woman goes into labour, loyalties, prejudice, and financial fears are put to the test.

      There is no shortage of cinematic oomph as Crialese and water-adept cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti contrast carefree tourists (including a blond pixie dream girl for Filippo, played by Martina Codecasa) with ragged Africans gasping for one more day of life. In fact, the refugees are more like the abandoned Sicilians than the latter initially recognize. It’s a crossroads point well worth making, but the filmmakers seem to have chosen their message carefully and then peopled it with characters as a kind of necessary afterthought. That’s why the plainest parts, with real old-timers simply grousing about unwanted changes, while affirming “The law of the sea”, are the most solid parts of Terraferma.