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  Cornell University

Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

Terraferma: A film and Q&A with Emanuele Crialese

Today’s lecture at our beloved palazzo was on the film Terraferma by renowned Italian filmmaker and writer Emanuele Crialese. Emanuele Crialese, born in Rome in 1965, pays tribute to his Sicilian roots in this beautiful and breathtaking film.  After attending NYU for filmmaking, he directed his first film, Once We Were Strangers (1997), in New York.  The year was 1997, the film was in English and was awarded several prizes, including the Valenciennes International Film Festival Award. He then decided to return to his homeland and met international success (both in festivals and art houses) with his first Italian work Respiro’ (2002), shot on Lampedusa Island in Sicily in 2002, with Vincenzo Amato and Valeria Golino in her most ambitious part to-date. In 2006, his next film Golden Door (2006), once again with Vincenzo Amato but without Valeria Golino (Charlotte Gainsbourg was better suited to play an English-speaking emigrant), examined the question of emigration to the States at the beginning of the 20th century, more particularly from the perspective of poor Sicilian peasants.


The film is about a Sicilian family whose small island is disrupted when a group of immigrants arrive on the island. The first encounter with the immigrants is a testament to the civility of the family.  The grandfather, upon seeing a raft with dozens of people, stops to assist those who are in the water, saving the life of five people and nearly risking his own. The family sees the immigrants to the shore and continue to care for the pregnant woman, Sarah, through the birth of her child. For doing so, the family boat is seized by the police. In a way, the whole movie is about the triumph of the laws of mankind over the laws of the government. The family continues to provide their help to the immigrant family until the end. I won’t ruin any of the details of the plot, but I found myself truly awestruck by the humanity of the film; mesmerized by the blue and black imagery of a tiny island community which – in spite of the many misfortunes that have befallen it – continues to do what is right over what the government demands.


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.”

The lecture was an incredible insight into the film and the characters.  As a young adult, it was really wonderful to hear Crialese’s thoughts on the process of learning “right and wrong” and how our family and our fate affect our morals. I can give this film only my most heartfelt recommendation as a modern tragic drama, and a beautiful portrayal of the story in such a metaphorical and dream-like way.  Andare a vederlo!

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