Daniel Espinosa returns with this stirring drama about an Eritrean refugee doing everything she can to survive in Calabria
Dir: Daniel Espinosa. Sweden 2023. 112mins
What price survival? Inspired by true events, Madame Luna follows a refugee from Eritrea who arrives in Italy seeking a fresh start. The ghosts of the past tug at her memory as she is forced to confront the realities of her new life. An involving human drama is notable for the quality of the acting and a successful return to Europe for director Daniel Espinosa after a string of starry Hollywood ventures stretching from Safe House (2012) to Morbius (2022); commercial interest should follow the world premiere at Rotterdam.
A successful return to Europe for director Daniel Espinosa
Almaz (Meninet Abraha) is just another face in the crowd as the latest group of refugees disembark in Calabria, Italy. She seems to crave anonymity but her eyes are alert to every threat, portraying a sense of what it is like to be a stranger in a foreign land. Almaz is processed and taken to a detention centre as she waits for her asylum application to be considered. “Welcome to purgatory, “ declares one of her new roommates. “It’s better than hell,” Almaz replies, as if she knows what she is talking about.
She has now tumbled into a rabbit hole of officials, bureaucracy, rules, and restrictions; cramped, shared accommodation and gloomy corridors combine to narrow her world. A distant ocean and a starry sky carry light and hope.
Working with writers Maurizio Braucci (Gomorrah, Martin Eden) and Suha Arraf (The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree), Espinosa delays revealing Almaz’s full back story and keeps the troubling flashbacks to a minimum. Instead, he immerses the viewer in the moment, as Almaz constantly confronts fresh challenges and moral dilemmas. Her language skills and determination soon find her rising in status. Nunzia (Claudia Potenza) gives Almaz work as an interpreter, and she proves more than able at gathering a multicultural gang and enforcing discipline on those willing to work for a pittance harvesting olives or labouring on construction sites. Life is cheap and individuals are expendable.
Fearless and focused, Almaz is nobody’s victim. Abraha lends her a swagger and a certain disdain for where she has found herself. She is exploiting the refugees as much as Nunzia and her criminal brothers – her competence only draws her further into their schemes.
Hints at Almaz’s past are expanded when she meets fellow Eritrean refugee Eli (Hilyam Weldemichael), who recognises her as ’Madame Luna’. The threat of exposure is palpable, but Eli is also a pricking of her conscience. Helping Eli might be a way of washing away all her sins. Madame Luna evolves into a story of how much humanity sill resides in someone who has sold their soul to survive. How long can the suffering of others leave you indifferent? Where does Almaz stand in the line between salvation and exploitation?
The film becomes more thriller-like as it unfolds. Espinosa takes a measured, unsensational approach to events, carefully building tension as Almaz has to choose between the easy pickings of a life of crime or the dangers in opposing it. The knowledge that the story is grounded in the experiences of the some of the refugees who feature in the film adds to the power of what is at stake.
Cinematographer Juan Sarmiento uses the spartan beauty of the Italian locations to confirm that hell can exist in the most attractive settings. There is a burnished glow to his work that gives it a visual appeal. Newcomers Abraha and Weldemichael betray no sign of inexperience and carry the film with absolute conviction. Weldemichael’s Eli evokes every sympathy as she faces endless hardship and disappointment. Abraha has a terrific screen presence, making Almaz a steely, implacable force but also revealing the emotional toll of where necessity has driven her.
Production companies: Momento Film
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Producer: David Olivier Herdies
Screenplay: Maurizio Braucci, Suha Arraf, Daniel Espinosa
Cinematography: Juan Sarmiento
Production design: Brigitte Broch
Editing: Theis Schmidt
Music: Jon Ekstrand
Main cast: Meninet Abraha, Hilyam Weldemichael, Claudia Potenza, Emanuele Vicor