Terraferma is currently screening at the Lavazza Italian Film Festival in major Australian cities. Written and directed by Emanuele Crialese (Golden Door, Respiro), Terraferma is a relevant and stunningly captured island drama that shocked me to my core.

Set on the volcanic Sicillian island of Linosa, a tranquil, idyllic community whose citizens, formerly reliant on fishing, have begun to recognize the economic potential of the booming tourism industry. Twenty year-old Filippo (Filippo Pucillo) and his mother, Giulietta (Donatella Finocchiaro) decide to rent out rooms to tourists for one more summer before leaving in search of a new opportunity. However, when Filippo decides to utilize it both as a fishing vessel and a means to show tourists the picturesque island he encounters a raft full of shipwrecked illegal immigrants making for refuge on the island.

This is Filippo’s story. He’s a young man torn between the traditions upheld by his grandfather and the needs of a new generation. He is supposed to embrace tourism and turn back illegal ‘aliens’ from the ‘terraferma’, but through his encounters, ever escalating and unnerving, and his responses (one in particular is unthinkable), he learns that his moral compass is not in tune with these new laws, and he must rebel. Hearing that someone has turned their back on drowning refugees, willingly or not, is enough to send chills. It is a film about family values, and moral patriotism, and one can certainly attest to this film evoking an emotional response outside of Italian shores.

Thematically, this is a dense film, and though much tenser and more realistic, deals with similar issues to Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre. Sharp contrasts are made, if sometimes overly expositional, between the unwritten laws of the sea, and the policies that govern the community, and between the tourists who bring money to the island and bathe on its beaches, and the illegals that flood the shores. The calculated tonal shifts – from being a pleasant family drama about the bond between a mother and her son, to a paradox between the leisure industry and poverty and hardship, to palpitating open water terror – genuinely surprise and evoke emotion. The horrors here resonated because this is a serious worldly problem.

Exquisitely shot, and effectively scored, Terraferma is engrossing from the get-go with opening underwater images of the camera being enclosed in a fishing net. It evokes a transition of freedom to constriction – and establishes a mood that remains hidden for stretches, but then flares up. There are consistently stunning captures, and the wonderful cinematography (some of the best I have seen this year) explores the beautiful landscapes and seas.

There’s strong work from all actors involved, especially Pucillo and Finocchiaro, but what is extraordinary is that Timnit T. was actually one of five survivors of a boatload of immigrants that turned up on Lampedusa, a nearby island, while Crialese was working on the treatment for the film. A few of the characters are absent for long stretches, but considering how many are being studied in parallel, Crialese does a good job of establishing their personal struggles and the motivations behind their decision-making.

Terraferma will leave you shaken. 

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22