Once You're Born (Quando Sei Nato Non Puoi Nasconderti)
October 26th, 20.15, David Lean Cinema
The full title of Marco Tullio Giordana's latest film is touching and poignant: Once You're Born You Cannot Hide. It refers to the moral awakening of a tween boy whose eyes are violently opened to poverty, injustice, racism and to brotherhood and responsibility: it is a coming-of-age that is particularly deep, and one there is no easy return from. The film itself is touching and poignant too, but rather self-consciously so. It is good to see the director of La Meglio Gioventu (The Best of Youth, 2003), which examined some of the most dramatic episodes in the last three decades of Italian history, turning his attention to the very contemporary issue of immigration in Italy. To me, sadly, it all felt rather deliberately done, when subtlety and a more singular focus might have achieved more.
Twelve-year-old Sandro is the only son of wealthy Northern Italian parents, both of whom are glamorous and stylish in a particularly Northern Italian way. They live in a gleamingly modern, minimalist home outside Brescia, and Sandro's father, Bruno (Alessio Boni), paces around the factory he runs in sharp cream suits, and brags to his workers – many of them African immigrants - about his new sports car. The film's focus on the discrepancy between Italian privilege and immigrant poverty is laid out even earlier. Whilst waiting in a bus stop Sandro sees a distressed African picked up by the police. He keeps pitifully calling out an incomprehensible phrase (which later turn out to be the noble words of the title, also the name of another immigrant) and leaves an indelible impression.
Sandro (Matteo Gadola) sets off for a sailing holiday around the Greek islands on a blinding white yacht with his father and a family friend, the lascivious Popi (Rodolfo Corsato). From the outset he is at a distance from the cavalier behaviour of Bruno and Popi, embarrassed by their attempts to chat up English girls and bored by the glamorous ease of life on the yacht. Rather inexplicably, he scrambles up onto deck late one evening, and manages to fall off the edge. Unable to hear him calling to them, Bruno and Pipo speed away. These scenes were fantastically shot: the palate is dark and moody, the underwater shots reminiscent of the wonderful Respiro (Emanuele Crialese, 2002). But then we move onto the major plot contrivance, and the real beginning of the film: as luck would have it, on the point of drowning, Sandro is rescued and pulled onto a 'clandestino' ship, carrying a variety of illegal immigrants.
Sandro witnesses all sorts of deprivation and misery, as well as hope and human kindness, on the battered old boat as it chugs its way towards Italy. Perhaps boatloads such as this do arrive all the time, but it seemed odd to me that there would be such a mixture of nationalities on the one vessel, from Romanians to Syrians to Angolans, and that they would be coming from the direction of Greece. Still, it makes for a dramatically interesting look at the plight of these very different migrants and those willing to take advantage of their desire for a better or safer life. We are in no doubt that the people-smugglers are the scum of the earth, especially when they abandon the boat some way from the Italian coast, leaving its cargo to be picked up by the authorities. Sandro becomes particularly close to a Romanian brother and sister, Radu and Alina, the ones who pulled him out of the sea, but by the time he reaches the detention centre it is clear he considers all these legal aliens his brothers and sisters. Even once his grieving parents have been informed that he is safe and well, he chooses to stay in the detention centre until they arrive (another hefty slice of unrealistic plotting, particularly given its officious red tape), trailing around with the resident priest and thereby allowing the viewer to see the great tapestry of life inside.
The scenes in the detention centre are moving and generous, but they feel as if they belong to another film altogether. At the same time, when Sandro's parents arrive and are pushed by Sandro (and their genuine gratitude) to try and adopt the Romanian pair who rescued their son, the film begins to feel ever more fragmented and overlong. There is no instant happy ending to this scheme; in fact Radu takes on a sinister aspect and Sandro is forced to see that the best intentions may not heal the situation. There is a satisfying moment when Sandro's parents ask themselves at the detention centre why they never thought to have any more children - the answer is clearly that it wouldn't fit with their lifestyle, their aspirations. Perhaps everyone’s aspirations would have to change to make a viable future for all those who reach Italy’s shores.
So much is turned over and explored in Once You're Born; all of it worthy and worthwhile. And Matteo Gadola is a natural on screen. But the whole feels contrived and eventually a touch confused, despite the very real, very pressing issues it tackles head-on.