When 70-year-old Sicilian fisherman Ernesto and his 20-year-old grandson, Filippo, spot a boat of "illegals" on the horizon, they notify the Italian Coast Guard. But when Ernesto sees a boy and his pregnant mother struggling in the waves, he dives into the sea, plucks them out and helps others onto his broken-down vessel.
This sets up a cascade of complications that puts the family's already precarious livelihood in jeopardy in "Terraferma," a 2011 Venice Film Festival favorite and Italy's submission in the foreign language film Oscar race. (It didn't make the final five that year.)
The actions also set the stage for sharp debates about the rules of the sea -- rescue anyone in distress -- and of man, which could cost good Samaritans their boats if officials seize them.
The fishermen once were a brotherhood, an elderly man recalls. Their ranks numbered 60, each with seven or eight children on their tiny volcanic island of Linosa, and the sea was bursting with fish. "We all were barefoot, full of lice, but the important decisions were made all together."
Now, they're divided or have jumped ship as Ernesto's son, Nino, has. He makes his living in tourism. "They don't like to see these half-dead illegals as they enjoy their vacation."
Little does he know his extended family is secretly sheltering the rescued African woman, her newborn and young son. Their fate, along with that of others who also desperately seek refuge on the island, will test the resolve of all everyone involved.
"Terraferma" is from director Emanuele Crialese, born in Rome to Sicilian parents and the maker of such films as the magical "Respiro," and memorable "The Golden Door" charting the passage of Sicilians to America and what awaited them there.
"Golden Door" was the back story to the American Dream, while "Terraferma" shows the tarnished, tattered hopes of North Africans who may have spent years and savings on a journey toward a better life.
However, they're not the only ones longing for a positive change in this movie that humanizes the incendiary immigration issue and gives characters a chance to check their moral compasses and to decide if they are rudderless or not
Movie showing is at 7 p.m. April 19, Alumni Hall. In Italian with English subtitles. No MPAA rating but PG-13 in nature.