by NEVIL GIBSON
Although its heyday as a force in world cinema is behind it, the thriving Italian industry continues to make several dozen films a year.
At its best, Italian cinema can be sublime and searingly honest about that country’s shortcomings, as well as the attractions that make it one of the world’s favourite places to visit.
The 18th annual Italian Film Festival, organised by Tony Lambert, provides a full menu of 18 offerings, from the antipasti of romantic comedies, pasta of everyday drama through to a main course of award-winning serious cinema. This is capped off with a dolce (dessert) of a figure-skating opera staged at the Verona Arena.
Shun Li and the Poet (Io sono Li) explores one of the touchiest topics in European films — the importation of Chinese and other workers through scam immigration schemes.
Although the Chinese have a lower profile than migrants from North Africa or the Middle East, they are more embedded in an Italian environment that is still highly dependent on small factories making clothing and footwear.
Shun Li is played by Chinese actress Zhao Tao, star of two of China’s biggest international successes, Still Life (2006) and Platform (2000). She is first seen as a worker in a Rome textile factory where she is working off an unspecified contract with an employment racket supplying cheap labour.
She cannot find out when she will repay her debt, and the implication is that she never will. Meanwhile, she has left her eight-year-old son back in China with her parents.
Suddenly, she is ordered to another job — in a bar-restaurant — in the small fishing village of Chioggia on the Venetian lagoon. She rooms with another young Chinese woman, who is also employed to work under slave-like conditions.
But Shun Li’s polite demeanour and endearing efforts to speak Italian with her customers despite their prejudices soon win over another migrant, Bepi (“the poet”), a retired Croatian fisherman, played by Rad Serbedzijas, the biochemical expert in Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible II.
Their relationship slowly develops, bound by their fishing backgrounds, love of poetry and experience of communism. But their friendship also upsets both her Chinese “handlers” and Bepi’s Italian mates. Shun Li is given no option but to leave Chioggia as the delicately told tale winds to a surprising but uplifting conclusion.
This is writer-director Andrea Segre’s first feature; he is better known for his outspoken documentaries on African labourers (The Green Blood) and boat people from Somalia and Ethiopia (Closed Sea).
The setting and the photography are luxuriant and calming — a strong contrast to the more aggressive treatment of illegal immigration and people smuggling in films such as Le Havre and The Whistleblower.
Segre is also sensitive to how his two characters straddle the contrasts of the Chinese work ethic and gambling habit with the easygoing Italian attitude to paying debts and taking pensions for granted.
Rating: Mature audiences; 103 minutes.
by NEVIL GIBSON