Few topics have more current relevance and urgency than the ongoing tragedy of African migrants crossing the Mediterranean, the subject of the Italian American director Jonas Carpignano’s first feature film. Since the start of the year, more than 1,500 people have died attempting the hazardous crossing—and thousands more have moved on to a precarious existence in Italy and other European countries. In Mediterranea, which screened in the Critics’ Week sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, Carpignano goes beyond the gruesome headlines to focus on the little-known hardships of migrants after they set foot on Italian soil, patiently setting the stage for a dramatic reconstruction of the riots that rocked the southern town of Rosarno in 2010. The script is inspired by real events, interviews, and the director’s own journey through North Africa—interrupted only when Algerian authorities warned him about the presence of al-Qaeda cells in the area.
The film’s beautifully shot opening scenes give a cursory but vivid portrayal of the migrants’ grueling, initial journey to the sea. Clinging to overloaded trucks or walking through desert terrain, they’re easy prey for bandits and exploitative traffickers. Upon reaching the Libyan coast, the migrants find out they have to pilot the rickety vessel themselves because the smugglers won’t do it.
Amid the gloom, there’s a moment of levity when one man argues that the film’s protagonist, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), who hails from Burkina Faso, can’t pilot the boat because he’s from a landlocked nation and has probably never seen the sea. The Mediterranean’s treacherous waters soon cause the vessel to capsize. Some on board survive by clinging to a floating structure until they’re rescued by the Italian coastguard, but a chilling underwater shot reveals the floating bodies of those who didn’t make it.
The film follows Ayiva and his friend Abas (Alassane Sy) to Rosarno, in Italy’s southern Calabria region. They have received a three-month permit to stay in the country, but need to land a job to apply for long-tem residency—a near-impossible mission. Calabria turns out to be cold (it’s in the middle of the orange-picking winter season) and desolate, with few job prospects. The migrants live in filthy shacks and squats, vulnerable to eviction by the police. They’re exploited for their labor in the orange groves and paid a pittance.
The gap between their expectations of Europe and the reality they encounter is glaring. Ayiva promptly warns his sister and daughter, who stayed behind, not to attempt the crossing. The disillusionment is palpable, but so is his profound joy when he sends his first 50 euros and a gift for his daughter back home. While Ayiva is aching to go back, he knows this is not an option.
Mediterranea draws an equally insightful portrait of southern Italy, a traditional, economically backward land that’s ill-equipped for the challenges of immigration. It’s a place of contrasts, where the locals’ conflicting instincts of generosity and narrow-mindedness leave the migrants disoriented and insecure. The colorful cast of characters includes an improbable child hoodlum (played by the superb Pio Amato) who trades in stolen goods, and a patronizing Good Samaritan who cooks lasagna for the migrants and calls herself “Mamma Africa.” The film’s director is now working on a sequel centered on migrants’ interactions with the fearsome Calabrian mafia. If it’s anything as shrewd as his first feature, it should cast light on another little known facet of the Mediterranean’s great migrant tragedy.