European Union Film Festival 2016: Mediterranea, by Aaron Pinkston
Likely because of a very brief and limited theatrical release late last year, Mediterranea was pretty much absent from the year-end critic film discussion. Strangely, though, it had a pretty good presence at various film festivals and award shows—first-time director Jonas Carpignano won Breakthrough Director at the Gotham Awards, was nominated for two prizes at the Cannes 2015, and the film had an impressive showing at the Independent Spirit Awards with three nominations. As the film didn’t play in Chicago last year, it was picked up to run in the European Union Film Festival, highlighted as a film underseen in 2015.
Immigration has become one of the most hot button topics of this presidential election cycle and a growing concern around the world. Mediterranea is another film that tackles the issue through the eyes of the immigrant and their experiences, though it has some unique qualities. In the film, Burkina Faso natives Ayiva and Abas make the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy for many of the reasons one would expect—most specifically, the ability to find easy and well-paying work in a modern country. Their experiences in the film may not lead to any transcendent moments, but Mediterranea is a thorough and often subtle account.
The environments really showcase the transition of the film’s narrative. We don’t see much of Ayiva’s life in Northern Africa, but it seems to be improving there. Those who have made the same journey in the recent past have sent back money to improve the schools and install solar panels. From the Facebook videos posted by those in Italy, it seems like a fun life, no doubt tempting on multiple levels. Unlike most immigrant stories, however, Burkina Faso isn’t the oppressive place which is usually fled, especially with the support coming in from overseas—this is a particularly interesting point as the film progresses and Ayiva has difficulty adjusting to his new environment. Whereas the deserts of Northern Africa are desolate, the open golden spaces are beautifully captured on film. This contrasts with the claustrophobic, crowded and rundown Italy. Historically one of the most cine-photographic countries on earth is shown in a much different perspective in Mediterranea.
Ayiva, played by first-time actor Koudous Seihon, is a charismatic young man—at least once he has settled into his new life. Mediterranea nicely shows the character slowly adjusting over time. He quickly learns that Italy isn’t the party-filled dream he expected (at least not the shantytown where he is allowed to live) and he stays quiet watching others navigate the barter economy in the immigrant community. The character develops beautifully, though, never losing what he left behind culminating in a tragically sad yet not manipulative conversation with his daughter still in Africa.
As Ayiva is prepared to work hard picking oranges and serving upper-middle class Italians and gain legitimate residence in the country, his friend Abas is becoming more political. Being an important but definitely secondary character to the narrative, Abas is difficult to categorize as anything other than an angry kid. When he gains interest in an immigrant rights group he quickly shifts from simply angry to aggressive in his views and actions. This drives Mediterranea toward its climax, perhaps a bit too quickly—tensions escalate in the film’s last half hour, shifting from a quiet character study to something much more political. While I was initially jarred by this tonal shift, once the film refocuses back to Ayiva through this lens, it only adds more layers to the character. Not knowing exactly where the narrative is going to go in these final scenes does add a benefit even if the fit isn’t perfect.
As it wraps up its theatrical showings and is soon released on home video, Mediterranea is a film worth catching. Carpignano and Seihon’s strong sense of the central character is the film’s biggest draw, though its strong hand-held cinematography isn’t far behind—cinematographer Wyatt Garfield also shot Lou Howe’s Gabriel and worked as the gaffer on Beasts of the Southern Wild, a similarly shot, if more experimental, film. The intense political theme doesn’t override the film, which may be disappointing for someone looking for a stronger take, but this is ultimately wise given the sharp observations and character work at the center of the film.