‘Isola’: Film Review

French filmmaker Fabianny Deschamps’ second feature revolves around a disoriented Chinese migrant’s exchanges with locals and fellow outsiders in a crisis-stricken Italian seaside town.

Two years after her Hong Kong-set first feature, New Territories, French filmmaker Fabianny Deschamps returns to Europe with Isola, in which a Chinese woman struggles with survival and sanity in an unnamed Italian town caught in the maelstrom of the migrant crisis. Pushing on with the part-documentary, part-drama approach that shaped her 2014 debut, Deschamps unfolds her story amidst real catastrophe: her fictional protagonist drifts in and out of refugee shelters, observing the funerals of those who died at sea and witnessing rescue and identification processes by the quay.

Boasting a wealth of ethereal visuals, a minimal narrative and elliptical encounters between its lead character and people and events around her, Isola is markedly different from most of the hard-hitting films addressing the migrant crisis. Fire At Sea or Mediterranea this film certainly is not. Deschamps seems more interested in probing the trauma as experienced by one idiosyncratic individual — a pregnant migrant who has seemingly lost her life bearings after losing her husband during their journey to Europe sometime ago — than in the devastating physical and social consequences of the current massive humanitarian (and political) crisis.

The Bottom Line

A lyrical but insubstantial piece about migration and displacement.

This whimsical, stranger-in-a-strange-land approach worked well last time around in New Territories, where the issue at hand was more about homesickness, alienation and, at worst, exploitation in China’s notorious sweatshops. But the migrant crisis is more than just a personal existential schism; it’s an all-engulfing life-and-death calamity that Deschamps‘ abstract aesthetics seem inadequate to address. While the movie beats with a humane heart and has poetic beauty to go with it, Isola is at sea in its efforts to engage with the issue itself, especially for savvy audiences already well-informed about the crisis.

After premiering in Cannes’ indie-oriented ACID section, Isola might still find some limited life on the festival circuit, but seems unlikely to match the profile of New Territories.

Isola is Italian for “island” and probably an allusion to the physical and psychological circumstances of the film’s lead character. Dai (Yilin Yang) lives on an island in the Mediterranean, in a seaside cave decorated with dolls and detritus she salvaged from the shores. In addition to being heavily pregnant, Dai is also mentally unstable; she spends most of the time muttering to herself and the unborn baby inside her about her missing husband. Having detached from reality, Dai also strays into town to mingle with the locals: thus her visits to the refugees’ quarters and her participation in religious processions. Meanwhile, she also makes money via regular trysts with two local men — sex-work that she seems unable to process or register properly.

Dai’s dreamy daily meandering gets a jolt when she discovers an unconscious migrant on the beach. A Berber man trying to head to Europe, Hichem (Yassine Fadel) wakes up and finds himself locked in a cage, with the deluded Dai feeding him and treating him as if he’s her Chinese husband. Through the pair’s interaction, their traumatic back-stories emerge. This makes for an interesting scenario, as if the ghost of a refugee from a previous age — someone who might have been part of the wave of Chinese rural migrants traveling to Europe in cargo containers in the 1990s — is passing on her experiences to a newcomer.  

But Isola doesn’t capitalize on those opportunities. Nor does it turn into a captive drama.The film merely floats along on Hazem Berrabah’s camerawork and composer Olaf Hund’s electronic soundscapes. The story, and the real-life issues from which it draws inspiration, deserve something more substantial, something more than just artsy dreaminess.

Production companies: Paraiso Productions, Pomme Hurlante Films
Cast:  Yilin Yang, Yassine Fadel, Enrico Roccaforte, Dimitri Sani
Director-screenwriter: Fabianny Deschamps
Producers: Nathalie Trafford, Eva Chillón, Alexandre Hecker, Julien Hecker, Yann Brolli, Jean-Guy Veran
Director of photography: Hazem Berrabah
Production designer: Filippo Pecoraino
Editor: Gilles Volta
Music: Olaf Hund
International Sales: Pascale Ramonda
In Mandarin, Arabic and Italian

No rating; 93 minutes