, ,

Year: 2011
Country: Italy/France
 Italian, Chinese
Director: Andrea Segre
Screenplay: Marco Pettenello, Andrea Segre
Cinematography: Luca Bigazzi
Soundscore: François Couturier
Cast: Zhao Tao (赵涛), Rade Sherbedgia, Marco Paolini, Roberto Citran, Guiseppe Battiston
Runtime: 96 min
Trailer: at the film’s official website, plus some film clips
Film’s official website: Io sono Li (some sections only in Italian)

Seen at special screening at the BFI for the 2011 Satyajit Ray Award, which is given annually for “to the director, of any nationality, for their first Feature Film screened at the London Film Festival which best captures the artistry expressed in Ray’s own vision”. The screening was followed by a Q&A with the director.

Please note: Io sono Li does not yet have a UK distributor – a real pity for a film as outstanding as this one. I tried to do my tiny bit to promote it by reviewing Io sono Li on Otherwhere, if you like the sound of the film, please do like the review and/or share it widely, so that we can get a distributor to notice!

Chioggia, a city on the Venetian laguna, is the hometown of Andrea Segre, the film’s director, and representative of a very traditional Italy: of native fishermen that have been making their living off the sea generation after generation. Evenings are typically spent in pubs, where an older Italian Mamma rules the roost and serves the half-rough clientèle. On a visit to one such pub that Segre had known since childhood days, he found a new, completely alien face one day. Instead of one of the Mammas, who have become an institution in their own right in these places over the years, there was a Chinese woman, plainly signalling a change, a change that had been silently unfolding in the country for while already. The story of Shun Li, one of Io sono Li’s protagonists, found its beginning there, as Segre recounts:

I still remember my encounter with a woman who could have been Shun Li. It was in a typical Veneto pub, where local fishermen had been going for generations. The memory of this woman’s face, so extraneous and foreign to these places weathered by time and worn by habit, has never left me. There was something dreamlike in her presence. Her past, her history, the inspiration for the story all came to me just looking at her. What kind of relationships could she build in a region like mine, so little accustomed to change? This question was the starting point for trying to imagine her life. (from Press Kit, link below)

Writing home.

The Li that Segre imagines is a Chinese woman, who, in order to acquire passage to Europe and a better life, has essentially sold herself into slavery. Having left behind not only her father in China but also an eight-year old son, she is tirelessly working off the debt owned to her traffickers in hope that her child will soon join her halfway around the world. Initially Li is a factory worker in Rome, but is then sent to Chioggia to take care of a pub. As she is struggling to get a grasp of her new work and the Italian language, she has customers that are reluctant to pay off their two-digit debts and give confusing orders (coffee with a shot of grappa di prugna).

Li is a striking character. In the opening scene, she recites lines written by a Chinese poet in her soft, whispery voice, revealing a beautiful sensitivity. Then there is this dreamy look that flits over her face at times when she feels the sea wind on her face and the profound sadness in her eyes when she thinks of her son, turning her silent and withdrawn as she is overwhelmed by emotions. Li is portrayed as a highly intelligent person, quite in contrast to the image we often have of illegal immigrants, Segre highlighting the prejudices of the people around her – and essentially our own as well. No one suspects what is beneath that foreign-looking exterior, indeed, they do not even care to imagine it as she is only a lowly Chinese immigrant woman to them that can never be fully assimilated into their reality. Although the fishermen that frequent Li’s bar might invite her to join them for a drink, it is a gesture permissible only as long as certain lines are not crossed.

Bepi “the poet” and Li, out on the laguna.

But lines are crossed: Bepi, an older fisherman nicknamed “the Poet” because of his penchant for rhyming, takes notice of Li one day and finds himself entranced by her, her quiet beauty and sincerity, staying after closing hours to look at photographs of Li’s far-away family and taking her to see his fishing hut out in the laguna. The gentle friendship that forms between them however is not one the community around them will accept, rumours and lies soon swirling. It is an incredible yet at the same time very real scenario that candidly plays out before our eyes: unwilling to understand that “cultures … are different, yet not more distant”, the people of Chioggia feel threatened by a very human and much needed connection between two related souls, obstinately clinging onto life as it once was in an Italy that is inevitably changing. The Chioggians’ resistance is ever more remarkable given the fact that Pepi is a foreigner himself, having immigrated from Yugoslavia 30 years prior, but is no longer perceived as such – a detail that gives food for thought and underlines the skilled nuance present in Segre’s filmmaking.

The story of Li and the poet is thus told with much care, by a director that thoroughly knows his subject. But he knows his technique too, offering a soundscore that wonderfully enhances every scene of the film and a cinematography that is visually poetic as well as full of novelty: the Laguna Veneta of Io sono Li – Chioggians stoically stalking through a flooded street and pub, water knee high – is one we have not previously seen, something that is quite an achievement given the profusion of depictions of Venice. Finally, both Zhao Tao and Rade Sherbedgia could not have been more perfectly cast as Shun Li and Bepi the Poet respectively. Zhao Tao is particularly impressive. She was found by the director through pure luck when watching Chinese films in his painstaking search for the right lead actress. Zhao spoke no Italian prior to the film nor did she have any filming experience outside of her native country, but succeeds in creating a Li that is both fragile and strong at the same time and is adeptly matched by Sherbedgia in his portrayal of the rough-around-the-edges yet sensitive fisherman.

A fresh view of the Venetian lagoon: mountains on the horizon.

Incredibly, Io sono Li is Andrea Segre’s first foray into feature films. Although Segre is a not a total novice – he has been recording the stories of immigrants in Italy as a documentary filmmaker in works such as A sud di Lampedusa (South to Lampedusa, 2006), Come un uomo sulla terra (Like a Man on Earth, 2008) and Il Sangue Verde (The Green Blood, 2010) for the last ten years – Io Sono Li is an unusually accomplished feature film debut. It offers a creation that is as realistic as it is poetic and hits the right note in every cinematic aspect, leaving one moved to tears as well as eagerly awaiting Segre’s future projects – a worthy winner of the  2011 Satyajit Ray Award indeed.

Overall verdict: With Io sono Li director Andrea Segre gifts us a film that is like a visual poem, bespeaking its director’s gentle, crafting hand, a discerning ear and, most of all, a profound understanding of humanity.

Rating: 9.5/10 (Truth be told, I’m tempted to give a 10/10.)

Bonus bits:

  • Press kit (.pdf file, opens in new page) for Io sono Li.

Image gallery: