The first 30 minutes of the Italian film “Terraferma” seem to imply the movie will focus on the evolution of a tiny Sicilian island, as the older generation hangs on to the past and the younger citizens rejigger their priorities.
Yet, a half-hour in, the movie transforms into something else entirely. That’s a big risk for a film that clocks in at shorter than 90 minutes, but for the most part the multi-faceted story works.
Smiley, curly-haired Filippo (Filippo Pucillo) seems totally innocent, which may be a byproduct of living on a small stretch of land in the middle of the Mediterranean. After his father disappeared on the ocean, the 20-year-old spends most of his time accompanying his fisherman grandfather, Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio), out to sea, even while his uncle, Nino (Giuseppe Fiorello), has the more lucrative job of catering to the annual tourist invasion. Nino thinks Ernesto ought to sell his beloved boat, as the fishing business has been tanking, but the father is set in his ways. Filippo’s mother, Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro), meanwhile, thinks the island is a dead end, and she plans to save some cash and head to the mainland with her son in tow.
This is enough to make a complete movie, especially once a blonde tourist emerges as a potential love interest for Filippo. But director and co-writer Emanuele Crialese suddenly changes course. Since this shift happens more than one-third of the way into the film, it doesn’t seem right to divulge much. Let’s just say the new thread involves the island citizens’ varying responses to an influx of African immigrants.
Even with a new plot, there’s still an overarching theme that holds the film together: Paradise island is a sad, struggling place. But despite the continuity of motif, the story starts to feel crowded, especially when each character seems instantaneously at odds with another. One set of opposing forces would probably suffice.
The movie excels at atmospherics, including a strings-heavy soundtrack and the evocative sounds of open water, whether it’s a faint whale call or the underwater sloshing of an old boat drifting over waves. The cinematography is similarly expressive. One early image sticks out: A panorama captures Filippo dancing around the bow of his grandfather’s boat as it scoots along the shimmery water.
As the film comes to its conclusion, there is some resolution. But the story lines from the first 30 minutes are all but forgotten. The loose threads give “Terraferma” a lackadaisical quality; maybe it’s true what they say about island time.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains language and nudity. In Italian and Amharic with subtitles. 88 minutes.