In 2012, as part of its “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” Filmmaker Magazine called Jonas Carpignano “an unusual cat with an unusual set of skills.” If Mediterranea, the writer-director’s debut feature, is any indication, he’s more of a wolf. There’s nothing cool or particularly unusual about Mediterranea in terms of content or Carpignano’s formal choices, but the film’s unwavering attention to problematizing the dividing line between predator and prey, much like the fact that wolves die more frequently at the hands of humans than live up to their folkloric reputation as purveyors of merciless carnage, lends it a persistent chill no less cold than the waters of the Mediterranean sea on a winter’s night.
Much of Mediterranea’s narrative, which involves black African refugees fleeing Libya and landing in Italy, draws attention the questionable belief in one’s own inalienable personage under the specifically cultural domain of globalization. Rather than simply play these themes out through violent, xenophobic conflict, as in a lesser film like Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, Carpignano crucially introduces communication technologies and social media, like Facebook and Skype, as markers of cultural hybridity, giving Ayiva (Koudous Seihoun), who arrives in Italy by way of Libya by way of Algeria, the kind of multi-faceted diasporic identity often denied in filmic representations of the African immigrant experience.
In an early scene, Ayiva peruses Facebook alongside Abas (Alassane Sy), joking about “wanting to get with those European girls”—an instance of desire that, as the film wears on, becomes less innocent in its boyish euphemism of “get with” and more severe in how physical and social connections, either with women, employers, or citizens, are ultimately denied to these men given their status as political refugees. The only aspects of culture either Ayiva or Abas can “get with” are the specificities of global capitalism defined through social media or music, the latter emblemized by the grooves and rhythms of several Rihanna tracks, which play at crucial narrative turning points. As Ayiva walks into a small party, a female refugee opines that “Rihanna is my sister” while one of the pop star’s songs plays over the stereo. Though Ayiva makes no explicit recognition of a shared kinship with Rihanna (it’s not clear he’s even familiar with the artist’s work), Carpignano holds most of the scene’s shots on Ayiva’s face as he surveys his surroundings, suggesting that, whether he wants it or not, Rihanna is also his “sister” by way of acculturation.
Carpignano works through small recognitions that have greater implications, especially as Ayiva strives to find a long-term contract to ensure his eventual status as a European citizen. Several scenes dramatize Ayiva’s quotidian struggle to stay afloat; he barters repeatedly with a young local over cell phones and cigarettes. Unannounced dangers are also commonplace. While Ayiva walks through the streets with a group of friends, a car zooms by, leaving the band shouting toward the unseen driver. At the end of the road, the car stops, turns, and sits, leaving the group in rapt silence. Carpignano makes little of this in the immediate moment (is the driver attempting an act of intimidation or retaliation?), deferring immediate resolutions in favor of accumulating unresolved tensions between characters, dramatized through diverse uses of the film’s soundtrack. Initial scenes in Libya and on the treacherous sea lack a score altogether. However, once in Italy, music and ambient sounds creep in, so that film form literally empathizes with the film’s characters by paralleling their newly felt freedoms.
Mediterranea is resolutely downtrodden, but level-headed, in its assertion that mistrust and violence remain endemic to debates on immigration fueled by self-serving interests. While the film stalls by not grappling explicitly with specific, European migrant policies, there’s no sermonizing on these matters either. In a late scene, as Ayiva chats with his young daughter via Skype, Carpignano avoids reducing Ayiva’s plight, which has been fraught with physical and psychological torment, to a session of cathartic relief from the travails of both cultural alienation and racial violence. Ayiva sheds several tears, but the film does not milk them for pathos. Instead, it suggests positive changes to immigration policy and assimilation reform could lie ahead if strident efforts are made to end the bloodshed.