Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 24, 2013


Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm

Like Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre”, “Terraferma”, opening today at the IFC in NY,  celebrates ordinary working people in southern Europe risking arrest to protect undocumented workers from Africa. Standing firmly against the xenophobia that is gripping the continent as well as the United States, these films remind us of how working class solidarity can manifest itself at the deepest and most intimate level even when those expressing it have never read a single word of Marx. Furthermore, “Terraferma” is in some ways a modern version of “Huckleberry Finn”. When offered a choice between justice and the law, the young protagonist—like Huck Finn–chooses justice.

The film is set on a small island that traditionally relied on fishing, but that has fallen on hard times due to overfishing. Relief seems to be on its way, however, in the form of tourism since the island is breathtakingly beautiful. The only drawback, however, is that it is in the direct route from Libya to Italy’s mainland and often a repository for shipwrecked Africans whose rickety boats fail to make it past the treacherous waters and jagged reefs.

The economic fork in the road is dramatized by the choices facing a particular family. Ernesto takes his grandson Filippo out fishing each day, enjoying every moment of their day even if the catch is barely sufficient to pay for expenses. Filippo’s father was lost at sea a few years earlier and his mother and uncle are anxious for him to find a new source of income, particularly in the tourism business that employs his uncle as a seaside bartender and tour boat tummler.

When summer arrives, Filippo and his mother move into the garage attached to their newly repainted house that will be rented to tourists. They turn out to be two young men and a woman from northern Italy who probably regard the Sicilian bumpkins in the same fashion that rich kids from Connecticut on vacation in New Orleans would regard Cajuns taking them out for a tour of nearby swampland. Local color.

One of the selling points of renting Filippo’s house is the availability of his grandfather’s fishing boat for day trips even if the tourists flout local mores. With a smirk on her face, the young attractive woman in the group asks Filippo if his grandfather would mind if she goes out on the boat bare-topped. He replies that she can wear whatever she wants.

On the day before the tour, as Filippo and his grandfather are out fishing, they spot a raft overloaded by Africans crying out for help. Following the strict laws that the racist Italian government has laid down, they immediately call the coast guard. Before the coast guard arrives, a handful of people from the raft jumps into the water and begin swimming to the fishing boat. The grandfather tells Filippo to allow them to come on board since that is the law of the sea. It is also the law of terraferma (dry land) since the family shelters an Ethiopian woman named Sara and her son in the garage risking arrest.

Emanuele Crialese wrote the screenplay and directed “Terraferma”. Born to Sicilian parents in Rome in 1965, he earned a filmmaking degree at NYU in 1995. Thankfully, his work hearkens back to the grand traditions of Italian neorealism rather than the flavor of the month style of filmmaking taught at NYU. Considering the increasingly violent and racist behavior of Italian cops and their fascist allies, this is a film for which there was a crying need. Thankfully, it is a lovely work of art to boot.

Crialese was on tour in the USA in February talking about his film. At Cornell, during the Q&A, he spoke about the woman who played Sara, the Ethiopian woman sheltered by the Sicilians. A student reported:

After watching the film, we had a wonderful Q&A section with Emanuele. He discussed the film as both a personal and general observation. An example of the personal aspect, the woman who plays Sarah, arrived in Italy on a boat that was drifting away for three weeks with eighty people, seventy-five of which were dead. They kept the story away from the tourists, much as they do in the film. The woman was already dead, was placed in a bag, and was committed for dead until they saw movement from inside the bag. She showed up at the audition a year later and asked if Emanuele remembered her from their first meeting a year earlier. She was then cast into one of the main roles, re-living on screen a part of this tragic story. But as a general concern, Emanuele said he “felt every person deserves to know when family is lost, [Emanuele] wanted to do something new, something that was politico-social to get to the heart of this issue of global responsibility.”

Mindless Entertainment Addendum

These two films don’t really merit a review but I can urge my readers to see Johnnie To’s “Drug War” that opens at the IFC two days after “Terraferma”. This is a tightly-wound Hong Kong version of “The French Connection” that represents this genre at its best. The last 20 minutes, a shoot-out between cops and gangsters, is as deftly choreographed as a Balanchine ballet. But even more entertainingly, the hero of the film—a cop leading the investigation—goes undercover as Mr. HaHa, a drug lord. His performance was so stunning and so amusing that I could not even recognize him as the cop. A must see.

I also can give a thumb’s up to “Wolverine”, the latest installment in the X-Men franchise that has a lot in common with the early James Bond movies with a Dr. No type villain but without all the Queen and Country horseshit. I am not gay but I could not get my eyes off Hugh Jackman, ten times more buff than Geraldo Rivera. The film opens everywhere in the next few days, including the planet Mars.

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