★★★★☆Jonas Carpignano's debut feature Mediterranea follows the fortunes of two African migrants, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy), friends from Burkina Faso in search of a better life on the European continent. They endure a hazardous journey through Algeria and survive a run in with violent bandits. Once in Libya, they join a group of illegals for the dangerous voyage over water. All are dismayed when the smugglers ask for a volunteer to pilot the boat that will take them to Europe. Ayiva and Abas cross the Mediterranean in a fragile, overloaded dingy that capsizes in a storm, terrifyingly evoked by Carpignano and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield. Others do not make it.
The two friends end up in Rosarno, a small town in southern Italy, with few working opportunities and nowhere to live. The pair are forced to pick and pack oranges for meagre wages and inhabit unsanitary shacks. Ayiva, we learn, has left behind his seven-year-old daughter with his sister. He dreams of making enough money to bring them over. This seems impossible given that he has only a three-month permit to remain and no idea how to find the requisite work contract in order to obtain legitimate residency papers. Many of the African women they encounter have turned to prostitution to survive and most of the local men are hostile towards the migrant community. Respite comes in the form of Mama Africa (Norma Ventre) an Italian pensioner who feeds the workers but expects adulation in return and Ayiva's dealings with Pio (Pio Amato), a sharp Italian kid and aspiring Mafioso. Once the orange season is over, many of the migrants find they are no longer needed and the locals set about trying to evict them or hound them out. After two black workers are killed, the subsequent protest swiftly turns violent.
Seihon's own experiences inspired Mediterranea and Carpignano has developed the subject from an earlier short, A Chjàna (The Plain) based on the 2010 Rosarno riots which resulted in 1,000 African workers being removed from the area for their own protection. Carpignano chooses to shoot many of the scenes in semi-darkness - this adds to the film's gritty realism but is frustrating to watch - and makes it harder for us to follow an already fragmented narrative. However Seihon's mesmerising performance ensures we emphasise with his predicament and keep rooting for him. It's a dark, sadly topical tale and Carpignano wisely offers various perspectives without ever coming across as judgmental or overly preachy. Instead, Mediterranea bears witness to the hardship endured by so many migrants who undertake horrific journeys, struggle to find work and accommodation and suffer insidious discrimination.