The First Snowfall is an outstandingly beautiful film; full of effortless poetry, and documenting the anger and deep sorrow of a refugee from Libya. Set in a small village in the Italian Alps, the film finds something profound to express within every story it touches upon.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Andrea Segre
Screenplay: Andrea Segre, Marco Pettenello.
Runtime: 104 minutes.
Cast: Matteo Marchel, Jean-Christophe Folly, Anita Caprioli, Giuseppe Battiston.
Plot: Dani is a refugee from the Libyan civil war, temporarily housed in the Italian Alps while the government processes his and his baby daughter’s visas. To fill the time he begins helping an elderly carpenter, and is drawn into the family as a treasured but reserved member. The whole village awaits the first snowfall, and the arrival of winter – while Dani awaits a decision on his fate, and hopes to move to Paris to start a new life.
Festival Goers? See it.
Viewed as part of the Lavazza Italian Film Festival.
Review: The First Snowfall is a film that is as poetic as its title; but that belies the quietly understated strength and power that this film contains. 'Before you learn to walk, you'd better decide where you want to walk' the narrator, Dani (Jean-Christophe Folly), relates over the opening shots of the film – a Bergman-esque landscape of a village in the Italian Alps. The film follows Dani, a refugee from the Libyan civil war who has come, via Togo, to Italy; bringing his baby daughter, as one of 10,000 immigrants who sought refuge in Italy 2011 alone.
Directed by Andrea Serge – who is better known for his documentary Shun Li and the Poet – and premièring out of competition at the 70th Venice International Film Festival, the film is so much more than the sum of its parts. The word I keep coming back to is poetry; but one that is a poetry of visual composition and performance, rather than scriptwriting. Documenting the difficult journey of a refugee is not original, and yet Serge manages to offer up something new within this film, assisted by the outstanding and authentic performances of his cast.
Part of this originality comes from the scenario itself, which takes as its theme the nature of an anger that has been transformed over time into a deep sorrow. Dani is incapable of even looking at his child, so much does she remind him of the wife who died to give her life. He slowly carves a wooden object for the child, a form that is not disclosed until the end of the film and which is accompanied by a powerful letter of apology to a child who is as yet unable to read it. Parallel to his narrative is that of the young boy he befriends (Matteo Marchel); a boy still angry at his mother and his grandfather for their inability to prevent the death of his father. The lives of the villagers – including the boy’s grandfather and mother – are organised around the life of the forest and the Alps; with the grandfather’s beehives being attacked at one point by a bear. ‘Will it come back?’ Dani asks, ‘perhaps, my honey is good’ the old man responds. Serge’s compositions are exceptional in bringing life into each frame; I was particularly struck by a simple series of shots of an old bus stop, which gave a strange architectural grandeur to such a simple structure. The grandfather, Pietro, performs the same role emotionally within the film, supporting and bringing life – there to gently counsel his daughter, his grandson, and Dani. On the mysteries of wood, he remarks that ‘it warms you up three times; when you cut it down, when you bring it home, and when you burn it.’ When he majestically fells a tree – in a scene reminiscent of Le Quattro Volte – his son remarks that ‘the little old man is a rock.’
The film’s palate is equally sumptuous, as one would expect of a movie being shot in the Italian Alps, with a riot of autumnal gold, orange, and burnt sienna with many shots of the symbolic canopy of trees that stretch over the villagers. It finds time for interesting ruminations of all sorts – including Dani’s African proverb that ‘When the lion gets old, even the flies attack him.’ Relating it back to his uncle, the boy tells him that ‘there are flies that kill lions in Africa,’ illustrating his youthful misunderstanding of the proverb. The uncle replies in disbelief ‘come on, how big are they?’ (in yet another outstanding performance for Giuseppe Battiston). Their lives, lived among the rough textures of different woods and the mist rolling through the trees, are perfectly captured and conveyed within the film. Dani points out the ‘Hiboux,’ the beautifully onomatopoeic French name for the owl. Yet another light touch of poetry in a film effortlessly full of them.
I was once fortunate to stay for three months in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a Bavarian town surrounded by mountains, and every day I was startled by the giant peaks that appeared on every side. Living among them, one can understand how early cultures worshipped them as mysterious and divine; and they still remain symbolic within modern literature for the secrets they disclose and hide. The First Snowfall beautifully captures that sentiment; the mysterious mist of feeling that transmutes anger into sorrow, and that sorrow which drives individuals to act in ways they do not understand. 'Things that smell the same must stay together' Dani reflects calmly, repeating back a lesson to the grandfather from earlier within the film. It is a devastating blow; and the film closes with the smallest, most moving of gestures. The First Snowfall is an outstandingly beautiful film.
Rating: Four stars.