Directed by Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio
Salvatore Esposito makes an effective leap from the hateful and ruthless Gennaro of Sky’s Gomorrah to tender, powerless father in this striking feature film from the De Serio brothers. The twins have been making documentaries for many years, mostly centring on the poor, dispossessed, uprooted people of Southern Italy. Their new film, inspired by events in their own family’s past, and the recent story of the death of a woman in the fields of Puglia, sees this documentary realism developing into what reaches in its finale a tragedy of almost operatic proportions.
Esposito plays Giuseppe, father of a small boy Anto (Samuele Carrino), whose wife has been singlehandedly supporting the family by working long hours as cheap labour in the fields beyond the town, after Giuseppe lost his job as quarryman. A work accident there cost him an eye. Their modest, precariously happy life, full of love, comes to a thudding halt when she dies, overworked, in the fields, and Giuseppe, apparently receiving no help from the state, is forced to take on the work himself, taking his little son along to live in the plastic shanty town that houses the poorest of the workers. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to those immigrants who make it in their leaky boats over the Mediterranean, well, here lots of them are. The brothers filmed in such a place, with many migrant workers as extras, as we are plunged into the dusty hard labour of low paid fruit and vegetable growing for the mere basics of life. Think of this next time you open a tin of Italian tomatoes.
But it’s more than an almost unbearable look at a side of life in Europe today that we’d rather not think about. The farm owner is not merely a cruel master, employing heavies to keep control when tempers and despair among the workers boil over (the dead are shuffled away into unmarked holes in the ground), he’s a voyeur sadist who uses his workers as entertainment. Yet, collecting artifacts dug up from his farm in his ‘chapel’, and with his house full of costly artefacts and good taste, he’s a cultivated man. So much for western civilisation.
A bruising finale that is almost impossible, emotionally, to watch, sees a kind of resolution for Giuseppe, and an end, one way or another, to his nightmare. The original Italian title, Spaccapietre (Stonebreaker) has for some reason become for international audiences Una Promessa (a promise), homing in on the promise Giuseppe makes to his son that he will see his mother again. We know it’s impossible. But the final moments of the film attempt to make it happen in a metaphysical way, which rather than providing comfort makes the darkness of the film and its bleak truth-telling hang more unshakeably on.