AFI European Union Film Showcase Movie Review: ‘Mediterranea’

or all the proclamations in the cinephile press about the “death of film”—meaning actual celluloid, not movies themselves—16mm is currently enjoying something of a renaissance. From “Steve Jobs” to “Carol” to the many films shot by prolific 16mm wunderkind Sean Price Williams (including “Queen of Earth,” “Heaven Knows What,” “Iris,” and “Christmas, Again”), 2015 has shown the extraordinary versatility, vitality, and downright beauty of this format.

Add “Mediterranea” to the pile. Shot in Morocco and Italy on Super 16mm stock by cinematographer Wyatt Garfield, “Mediterranea” balances handheld realism with surprising bursts of lyrical beauty. It is the perfect aesthetic complement to writer-director Jonas Carpignano’s gritty yet sensitive immigrant drama, a vivid tale of two buddies from Burkina Faso, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy), struggling to gain a foothold in a foreign land. The film begins with their journey to Italy, a hellish, attenuated struggle against desert, sea, and human indifference. Ayiva and Abas find more human indifference in Rosarno, but there are also pockets of kindness and compassion, such as a well-meaning boss who invites Ayiva to dine with his family. Ayiva and Abas reside in a tent village with constant fear of arrest and deportation, but they eventually land decent work picking oranges. But just as they seem to be on the upswing, they face new setbacks that force them into a realization that they will never be fully welcomed into Italian society.

Carpignano’s portrayal of this community of African immigrants never feels half-formed or monolithic. “Mediterranea” is particularly sensitive to the intermingling of politics and daily life in marginalized communities. Ayiva and Abas offer differing responses to the indignities of migrant labor. Ayiva largely takes them in stride, eager at any chance to get ahead and send money back to his sister and daughter; Abas, while happy to work, bristles at some exploitative labor practices. When racial tension comes to a head with African protesters marching through the streets of Rosarno chanting “Stop shooting Blacks!” (as they actually did in 2010), Abas is the first to join in, but Ayiva, in a clear nod to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” is the first to start breaking some shit.

“Mediterranea” is telling a story with broad social implications, but Carpignano trains his focus narrowly on Ayiva and, to a lesser extent, Abas. Garfield’s camera seems to want to devour the actors’ faces, zooming in uncomfortably close and often sacrificing spatial clarity for pure human connection. Seihon’s face, a perfect image of guilelessness and perhaps even naivete, comes to dominate the film. Ayiva is not meant to stand in for all immigrants, but, the film seems to suggest, if a man as hard-working and pure of heart as Ayiva can’t get ahead in Italy, what hope does any black immigrant have?

Carpignano occasionally indulges in a bit of cutesiness (the film contains two separate precocious children, the bumptious young daughter of Ayiva’s boss and a chain-smoking ten-year-old dealer in the black market) that offers a bit of comic relief but seems at odds with Carpignano’s naturalism. But even these scenes serve to highlight that the nicest, hardest working immigrants are still basically precocious children in the view of Italian society. Liberals like having them around as long as they stay in their place and don’t get too out of hand. Late in the movie, Ayiva works the wedding of an Italian acquaintance. He seems to realize now that he will only be asked to perform labor at weddings, not to attend them as a guest. In the final shot, someone asks Ayiva to come inside and dance. As he walks toward the reception and the Rihanna song swells (“We found love in a hopeless place…”), the camera loses focus until the screen is nothing but a blur of colored lights. Ayiva, who longs for his homeland, who has left his daughter behind on another continent and suffered every indignity to provide for her, can persevere only by becoming invisible.

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