"Me, The Other": Attitudes By Daniela Bisogni
The shift in relations between people from the East and the West following 9/11 has only recently begun to be reflected in cinema. In the last year alone, some 10 to 15 films were produced that deal with this issue, with budgets large and small. Their predominant theme is the difficulty of people from the Maghreb who travel or emigrate to Western countries to find themselves victims of prejudice, imprisonment or even torture, having been judged with suspicion simply because of their nationality. This is the story of Me, The Other (Io, l’altro), a courageous Italian production that marks the directorial debut of the Tunisian-born Mohsen Melliti. The film was shown at the 31st Cairo International Film Festival, as befits the festival’s special focus on Northern Africa.
Me, The Other highlights the long-lasting friendship between two fishermen — an Italian, Giuseppe, played by the well-known actor (and first-time producer) Raoul Bova, and a Tunisian, Yousef, also played by an Italian actor, Giovanni Martorana. Their relationship is poisoned by doubt and fear when Giuseppe begins to wonder whether his friend might be a terrorist suspect that local police are hunting in connection with the Madrid train station bombing. At the base of the Italian’s suspicions is the name of his friend: Yousef Ben Ali, the same as the presumed terrorist. Giuseppe hears a radio report naming the suspect, and finds a newspaper clipping with a photo of Al-Zarkawi (which Yousef had cut out for the soccer photo on the other side of the page). The unsophisticated Giuseppe becomes so convinced that Yousef leads a double life that he throws away years of trust and friendship, finally locking up the Tunisian inside the vessel’s hold. But Yousef escapes, giving rise to a cat-and-mouse game that ends in tragedy.
The atmosphere created doesn’t go as deeply into the fear and suspicion one man holds towards the other as it could have. A stronger screenplay might have built a larger sense of the world around the characters, for instance, instead of only touching upon it. Even the resolution comes too early, before the characters and situations seem fully developed.
The film, a “marine thriller”, is largely set within the small space of a boat — a challenge and a new genre for Italian cinema. But Melliti is not a “genre” director, and therefore doesn’t manage to keep suspense high with the force of imagery, sound and acting. Me, The Other nevertheless stands as an important film because it considers the collision between two civilizations, the Eastern Islamic world and the Western Christian world — two cultures that today seem to be growing further apart from one another, with fewer chances for genuine dialogue. This is also the responsibility of the world media, seemingly intent on stirring up fear between the two cultures. Suspicion is often generated by fear; fragile human relations depend too much on immediate impressions, and suggestions by the media sometimes encourage fear and racism instead of calm and understanding.
Although it was scheduled to be screened in Cairo on December 6th, Me, The Other never made it to the festival; it was sent by courier from Italy on November 28th, and after a long and inexplicable tour around the world (including stops in Brazil and the U.S.), the courier reported on December 3rd that the print would arrive in Cairo on December 5th — too late for any screening, as Egyptian customs take 24 to 48 hours for processing. At the last minute, the screening in the International Competition category had to be cancelled. By that time, however, our FIPRESCI Jury had watched it anyway, projected from a DVD, which rendered the quality very poor. A tough break for a film that might have had a chance at a prize.