This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
An authentic, understated debut jabbed with urgency by the acute timeliness of its subject matter, Jonas Carpignano‘s “Mediterranea” is a compelling slice of social-issues cinema that makes very few compromises until the slight letdown of a mid-air ending. For the most part an assured film, confident in both the drama and the truth of the scenario it observes, this ground-level view of the immigrant experience feels both pinpoint specific and all too representative of the obstacles and attitudes that face so many illegals in so many parts of the world. Informed by a kind of observational humanism, Carpignano neither sanctifies his characters nor simplifies their situations. In fact, the filmmaker’s eye is of the respectful, intelligent, and well-informed outsider — an embedded observer, rather than a participant — but just as he clearly cares a great deal about the issues the film raises, he seems to have faith that the audience will care too, not through manipulation, but simply by falling into step alongside Ayiva (a sensitive, charismatic Koudous Seihon) during this brief, crucial period of his life. He is right.
The literal journey the film tracks maybe about two and a half thousand miles in geographical terms, but Ayiva’s real odyssey only begins when he reaches Italy from his home land of Burkina Faso, with his best friend Abas (Alassane Sy) in tow. So, while the trip itself is storied, marked by holdups (literally) and setbacks, it is the arrival that holds the biggest shocks and disappointments. Ayiva and Abas are welcomed by old friends, but their digs are a rodent-infested shanty town; their jobs menial, exploitative and ill-paid; and the hostility of the Italians, especially the local gangs, toward them and their underclass is palpable. This sense of embattlement in turn leads the illegal African immigrant community to circle their wagons tightly — without opportunities for advancement or assimilation they become more doggedly unified in their outcast status, and thus the vicious circle of exclusion breeding economic disparity which breeds racism which breeds a rejection of the local culture which breeds more exclusion, is established. And, of course, they are grindingly poor.
The different possible responses to these straitened circumstances are embodied in the different reactions and trajectories of the two friends. Ayiva, whose first act in his new country is one of theft (he steals a suitcase in order to have warmer clothes), works hard, and suffers the indignities his bosses heap on them all. As a result, he catches the eye of a seemingly decent employer, Rocco (Davide Schipilliti), who even invites him into his home, where Ayiva gets a kick out of bossy, precocious Marta (Vincenzina Siciliano), who reminds him of his own daughter back in Burkina Faso. Abas, by contrast, is sulky and truculent, refusing to work hard for people who exploit his labor, and engaging with the locals on only the most confrontational of levels.
Now, while our sympathies are more directly engaged by Ayiva’s gentler, more pragmatic, more hopeful approach, there is no way we can condemn Abas for his very natural response either: neither man is wholly good or wholly bad, and both, in different ways, are totally in the right. They are each caught up in cycles over which they have no control, which are often fed by nothing more malicious than the desire to reassure people back home that everything’s going okay, which contributes to the false expectations that sees so many pour onto those rickety boats every day.
With Ayiva being pulled in opposite directions by his warring desires to make a go of things in this new country yet remain loyal to Abas and his expatriated, homesick community, a crisis is inevitable. In fact, he’s pushed towards it in one of the film’s most interesting and complicated scenes, where Ayiva asks for Rocco’s help in obtaining papers to be able to work and live there legally, which Rocco obliquely rejects. Instead, he tells the story of his own grandfather’s emigration to America, and how nobody helped him there and how his community had to pull together to look out for each other. It’s a chilly moment that suddenly suggests that Rocco’s kindness is predicated on a similar kind of disdain for Ayiva and his “Uncle Tom” behavior, as is Abas’. The violence, when it happens, is quick, ugly, and brutal.
“Mediterranea” does not solely owe its topicality to recent events in that region, like the tragic sinking of an immigrant boat bound for Italy off the coast of Libya that resulted in 400 deaths; its climactic scene in which a group of protestors march down a street chanting “Stop shooting blacks” will induce a shiver of recognition for American viewers too. If anything, all this added interest and relevance makes the ambivalence of the ending Carpignano chooses all the more disappointing — the film has been so sure and so confident to that point that a hovering finale, which suggests a particular reading of Ayiva’s fate but does not confirm it, feels unearned. We can hardly have expected one low-budget indie film from a debut feature director to offer some magic-bullet solution to the problem of illegal immigration and endemic racism, but Carpignano is so adept at restating the problem, and at establishing a bond between audience and lead, that we at least expect a conclusion. As it is, he is a guide who knows the territory well and tracks a clever route through dangerous terrain, but just in sight of journey’s end, he abandons us to go the rest of the way alone. [B]