Dir: Nello La Marca. Italy. 2008. 120mins.
Italian director Nello La Marca's first narrative feature Motherland (La terramadre) is a neorealist drama about economic disenfranchisement that explores the intertwined fates of two radically different people trying to survive in the dirt-poor southern Sicilian city of Palma di Montechiaro .
La Marca has made several documentaries and his training shows here; his portrait of the city is the film's most distinguished element. At its best, Motherland is a social autopsy of the cultural and economic forces that account for people's sad and quietly desperate behaviour. The movie has some small, quiet moments of revelation, though the absence of a strong point of view prevents the director from shaping the work in a dramatically satisfactory way.
While the movie deals with an area that has tremendous relevance at the moment, the fate of the marginalized and the dispossessed and the moral plight of illegal workers, outside of Italian markets it will most likely be restricted to a festival showing. Motherland does have the commercial advantage of taking on the white button issue of illegal foreign workers, however, and that alone should insure play in ancillary markets at home and possibly abroad.
In Palma di Montechiaro, a boy on the cusp of adulthood, Gaetano (Di Rosa) mourns his late mother who died from cancer. A go-getter determined to escape his restricted life, Gaetano carries out a tentative, furtive affair with the beautiful and impetuous Nadia (Zarbo) and performs odd jobs with an older friend Liborio (Teresi). His father (Melluso) is a German national who insists he leave Palmas for the improved economic opportunities there.
Despite the exceedingly harsh and unyielding living conditions, Gaetano is strangely attracted to his roots and refuses his father's repeated admonishments. His story is intertwined with that of Ali (Jarallah), an illegal migrant worker who arrives surrepetitiously and finds himself repeatedly exploited. The stories converge after Gaetano takes a politically connected job with the local don, tabulating his payments to illegal workers.
La Marco is fairly effective in illustrating the clash between the town's battered, defensive inhabitants and the simultaneous threat and emerging possibilities brought about by the rise of the illegal migrant workers. He is helped by some convincing work from his primarily nonprofessional actors. Di Rosa is particularly impressive, at once surly and insouciant. His movements are quick and alert, and he creates a particularly anxious and unsettled portrait of a trapped young man.
At two hours, though, Motherland is sluggish and fairly monotonous in stating its points rather than dramatising them. This is the kind of movie where the camera trains seemingly forever on the interior of a man's breakfast cereal bowl. The director bludgeons the viewer with one example after another of privation and near third-world misery that becomes exceedingly repetitive and finally exhausting.
The movie's setting is a visually striking one, a point muted by the often sloppy and imprecise digital photography that lacks the necessary fluidness and spontaneity the material requires.
Comune di Palma di Montechiaro
Filmoteca Regionale Siciliana
Sicilia Film Commission
Garden SNC, Palermo
Comune di Palma di Montechiaro
00 39 348 603 0215
Nello La Marca
Director of photography
Tarek Ben Abdallah
Michele Di Rosa
Youssif Latif Jarallah
Bruno del Vecchio
Biaggia Casia Tannorella