The opening scenes of Italian director Emanuele Crialese’s picturesque morality tale, “Terraferma,” recall some of the surreal images of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s extraordinary documentary about a fishing trawler, “Leviathan” (2012). Shot from underwater, the hull of a vessel passes overhead, as the pulsing ripples of its nets spiral out like an abstract painting. On deck the fishermen, framed by the intense blue of sea and sky, spot something bobbing in the water: It’s the prow of a sunken ship. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the wreckage probably came from a boat carrying illegals from Africa to the fishermen’s island home of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily. It’s also clear that the phenomenon is not new to them. Crialese, whose previous film, “Respiro” (2002), also exploited the rugged beauty of the island and its people, for a while wisely employs such simple images and meditative narrative rhythms again to relate a story that could easily submerge into cliché and sentimentality. But then conventional plotting takes over, and much of the film’s poetry and originality are lost.
The boat belongs to white-bearded, patriarchal Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio), who took it when the previous owner, his son, was lost at sea. His grandson Filippo (Filippo Pucillo) helps out, but times are tough for fishermen. Filippo’s widowed mother, Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro), tries to convince Filippo to give up the old ways and perhaps get a job on the mainland. Filippo’s entrepreneurial uncle Nino (Giuseppe Fiorello) pushes the young man to work with him in catering to the bustling tourist trade. When Giulietta overrules her principled but ineffective father and moves the family into the garage in order to rent out the house to vacationers, wishy-washy Filippo reluctantly gets with the new program. It looks like Ernesto will be the last one to practice the old profession.