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ROME 2021

Review: Mediterraneo – The Law of the Sea

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- Marcel Barrena’s film retraces the birth of the NGO Open Arms which has saved thousands of refugees, but is too enthusiastic in celebrating its protagonist

Review: Mediterraneo – The Law of the Sea
Dani Rovira, Anna Castillo and Eduard Fernández in Mediterraneo – The Law of the Sea

Many no longer take note of the numbers of drowned refugees. But all of us will remember the photo of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian child of Kurdish ethnicity found dead on a beach close to Bodrum in Turkey, 2015. The image taken by photographer Nilüfer Demir travelled all over the world, it became symbolic of the migrant crisis and it made us stop and think. And it is this image which is taken as a starting point for Mediterraneo – The Law of the Sea [+see also:
trailer
film profile
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, a film by emerging director Marcel Barrena (100 Meters [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
) which has been chosen for Rome Film Fest’s Official Selection, following its presentation at the San Sebastián Film Festival. But even though the idea of that drowned little boy returns often throughout the film’s 110-minute running time, the Barcelona-born director’s intention isn’t only to rouse our consciences; he also explores why certain lifeguards from Badalona decided to devote themselves to the full-time rescue of migrants. And anyone wondering how the Catalan NGO Open Arms, founded by Òscar Camps, first saw the light of day, will be given an answer. Especially Italian viewers, given that the “Open Arms trial” is currently underway, in which the Northern League’s former Minister for the Interior Matteo Salvini is accused of unlawful imprisonment and dereliction of duty owing to the fact that, in August 2019, the NGO’s ship which saved 147 migrants was left at sea for days while it waited for authorisation to allow these survivors to disembark.

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The film is set in autumn 2015. Camps – played by the popular Eduard Fernández – is the owner of a company providing water-based rescue services. He has a number of employees on his books, scores of jet-skis, a faithful right-arm man called Gerard (Dani Rovira) and a bright manager in the form of Nico (the versatile Sergi López), but what he likes best of all is taking up his post on the watchtower on the beach and working his shift as a lifeguard.

Going from entrepreneur to activist isn’t an obvious leap. Shocked by the photo of little Alan Kurdi, Òscar Camps decides to head to the Greek island Lesbos, just a few kilometres from the Turkish coast, where hundreds of migrants are appearing. Reluctantly, Gerard follows him. Once on the island, the two of them are faced with a tragic predicament. Endless disembarkations from dinghies at all hours of night and day, long lines of refugees heading towards Mória, which was the biggest refugee camp in Europe until it burned down in September 2020. Òscar and Gerard discover the desperation of women, men and children, the ferocity of the people-smugglers who force migrants to puncture their rafts in order to be rescued. They come up against the inertia of the coastguards, Frontex’s dubious management of the monitoring system, and the indifference of the island’s inhabitants.

This drives Òscar to set about organising better refugee rescues. Joined by his daughter Esther (Anna Castillo), as well as Nico, Oscar is forced to contend with the terrible sinking which took place on 28 October 2015, a climactic scene which packs an intense emotional punch and into which Barrena invests his full directorial skill.

The film harbours the very best of intentions, but it’s too unbalanced in its enthusiastic celebration of its protagonist. The heroism of the latter isn’t merely suggested to the viewer, but consecrated scene after scene by way of excessive rhetorical tricks (versus the unseen in Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx). It’s hard to fully understand the path of humanity, justice and solidarity that is taken by this “normal” man, who finds himself standing alone against European policy and the many walls that arise. Meanwhile, the film’s refugees are background figures who fail to come to life, smothered by Oscar’s earnestness and exuberant protagonism. So much so that Danielle Schleif’s screenplay knowingly invents the imaginary figure of a female doctor (Melika Foroutan) looking for her daughter who was caught up in a sinking. She’s a paradigm of the thousands of people who cross the Mediterranean to escape armed conflict and misery.

Mediterraneo – The Law of the Sea is a co-production between Spain and Greece, involving Lastor Media, Fasten Films, Arcadia Motion Pictures, Cados Producciones and Heretic, with the participation of RTVE, Movistar+ and TVC. The movie is sold by Filmax.

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(Translated from Italian)

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