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.
All this proves moot when Ernesto’s boat encounters a raft crowded with asylum seekers, some of whom jump off and swim to the boat. Ernesto, decides not to obey the law of the land that forbids aiding illegal aliens, but instead obeys the traditional “law of the sea” which forbids abandoning those in need of rescue. In a poignant, powerful scene, he and Filippo pull the desperate swimmers, including pregnant Sara (the strikingly beautiful Timnit T., herself a former African refugee) and her young son, on board. And since Sara is on the verge of giving birth, the stalwart Ernesto insists on giving the mother and her family sanctuary in his home.
So then the story gets both complicated and predictable. Giulietta, fearing for the well-being of her own son, struggles to come to terms with the displaced mother and her beleaguered family, and a hard-earned, heartwarming Hollywood bond can be seen in the making. The easily distracted Filippo, meanwhile, nervously courts Maura (Martina Codecasa), a hip blond tourist from Milan. This extra baggage overtaxes Crialese’s narrative technique of using simple, limpid imagery to tell his tale. Not entirely, though — in one ironic and evocative scene, a mob of bikini-and-speedo-clad off-island revelers dance on the deck of a chartered fishing boat, mirroring the earlier spectacle of terrified refugees jammed on a raft. Unfortunately, like those two vessels, “Terraferma” has taken too much on board for smooth sailing.