Emanuele Crialese's Terraforma takes place on Linosa, an island off the coast of Italy so small that, as one character sadly points out, you can't find it on a globe. The fishing industry that once thrived there is dying, a passing that we witness through the lives of one family, whose patriarch, Ernesto (Mimmo Cuticchio), still goes out looking for a catch every morning with his grandson, Filippo (Filippo Pucillo). The rest of the family, though, doesn't support their continuation of the fisherman's life, rationally pointing out that their vessel, which belonged to Filippo's father before he disappeared at sea, is worth more as scrap metal than it is as a fishing boat. Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro), Filippo's mother, is particularly determined to leave the island for a place where Filippo's opportunities don't end with his family's increasingly worthless legacy.
We soon realize, though, that whatever its residents may think of it, Linosa still draws two vastly different kinds of visitors: wealthy Italian tourists who come for its beautiful beaches and illegal African immigrants passing through on their way to the mainland. So while at first the film appears to be only about a small island losing its identity, Crialese slowly adds new layers to his story, first when Giulietta turns her home into a bed and breakfast for tourists, and then, more importantly, when Filippo and Ernesto save a handful of migrants from drowning in the open ocean and then lose their boat for the crime of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. Eventually it becomes clear that Linosa's problems are part of widespread economic and political shifts, and in Terraferma the small island comes close to serving as a powerful analogy for a modern Europe where the combination of faltering economies and a distrust of immigrants has the potential of bringing further ruin to an already beleaguered continent.
Yet the promise of this thoughtful build-up dissipates over the film's final hour. Once the image of a raft overflowing with immigrants is juxtaposed with that of a yacht piled with drunken, gyrating tourists, nuance all but evaporates from Terraferma. Crialese repeatedly shows us the animosity that immigrants face on Linosa, and as Filippo and his family engage in predictable soul-searching, the film joins them in lamenting a lost moral code—the “laws of the sea,” as Ernesto calls it—that would never have allowed such mistreatment. This dichotomy—between the righteous traditions of the older generation and the sullied, self-interested commercialism of modern life—grates in particular, not because there isn't any element of truth to it, but because its simplicity belies the complex means by which compassion for foreigners erodes in economically troubled times. In many ways, Terraferma deals with a mix of subjects similar to Le Havre, but its self-seriousness never allows it to become the realist counterpoint to Aki Kaurismäki's tragicomic approach that one initially hopes it will be.