(Italian with English subtitles)
Rated R. Our ratings: V -2; L -1; S/N -1. Running time: 1 hour 28 min.
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Director/co-writer Emanuele Crialese’s film (Italy’s 2012 entry in the Oscar race) is set on the first Sicilian island that refugees from African war and poverty encounter on their dangerous trek across the Mediterranean to Europe. Here Grandfather Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio) is at war with his son Nino (Giuseppe Fiorello) over the need to abandon their old fishing vocation and adapt to the new tourist-based economy. Nino already has done so, becoming quite a huckster for his business whenever a large cruise ship disgorges pleasure-seeking tourists from the mainland. Ernesto lives with his widowed daughter-in-law Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro) and her 20 year-old son Filippo (Filippo Pucillo), the latter who goes out with him in search of the dwindling supply of fish, but also works with his mother for his uncle Nino. Giulietta, seeing no future on the island, longs to escape with her son to the more promising opportunities of the mainland.
One day while out in search of a catch, Ernesto and Filippo spot an overloaded raft of Africans frantically waving to them for help. Ernesto calls the Coast Guard who order him not to pick up any of the immigrants. However, five or six of the refugees jump into the water and swim toward his boat. Ernesto is deeply committed to the law of the sea that dictates that one always comes to the aid of those in distress, something he will argue several times with his family and neighbors. They pick up the Africans, among whom are the very pregnant Sara (Timnit T.) and a young son. He does not tell the Coast Guard, and when they land, the men run off into the hills, leaving behind Sara and her boy.
Giulietta, who has moved the family to their garage so that they can rent out the house to a trio of tourists, is decidedly upset by what she regards as an intrusion by the Ethiopians (as they turn out to be). However, given Sara’s condition, she cannot turn her away yet, but does let her know that after the delivery she will have to go. Sara gives birth to an infant daughter, who is immediately resented by her brother. As Sara shares her story with Giulietta, despite the difficulty of the language barrier, we see the reason for the boy’s resentment—the infant is the result of Sara’s having been raped. The boy is convinced that their father whom they hope to join in Italy will reject her and the baby, but Sara replies that he will not if he is the same man he was five years ago before his departure for work.
Giulietta grows to like and admire the plucky Sara, but Filippo is growing more to resemble his opportunistic Uncle Nino. This is tragically evident on the night that he takes their three tourist guests (from whom they thus far have kept the secret of their illegal guests) on a night ride in the family boat. The joy ride starts out on a merry note, but when they come across a raft of African refugees, Filippo prevents any from climbing aboard their boat by beating on their hands with an oar. The three tourists are appalled at this, as well as the revelation that illegals have been coming to the island, despite Nino’s having assured everyone that there are no illegal immigrants on the island. The next day the bodies, some still living, are brought to the shore for everyone to see. The Coast Guard authorities are now aware that there are several missing refugees from the earlier group.
How the young man atones for his terrible act makes for uplifting viewing. The conflict between Ernesto’s affirmation of the hospitality required by the old law of the sea with that of civil law which demands the refusal of help to illegal immigrants calls to mind the debate years ago surrounding the Sanctuary Movement in America, the current version of which is should people of faith and their churches offer aid to illegal immigrants who have come today more for economic than political reasons. It is thrilling to see Ernesto stand by his risky choice, as well as seeing his daughter-in-law and grandson still wrestling with that choice and its possible consequences. Both mother and son move from self-centeredness to other centeredness, an ideal enshrined in the Law of Moses quoted above. It is interesting to see the European version of a problem that so divides America, and to learn that there are compassionate hearts there also who place ethical law above any civil law that would prevent deeds of love and mercy. This is film every person of faith should see and share when it is available on DVD or streaming video.
The full review with a set of 7 questions for reflection or discussion appears in the Sep/Oct issue of Visual Parables, which will be available on Sep. 23 when VP’s new site is launched.