The potential to be a very meaningful film is not quite met.
First Light opens on a scene of Martina (Daniela Ramírez) searching her apartment for something that she can’t find. We soon find out that she’s looking for her and her son’s passports. Martina and Marco (Riccardo Scamarcio) play an unmarried couple who live with their seven year old son Mateo (Gianni Pezzolla) in Bari, an Italian city on the Adriatic.
Much about the film’s plot isn’t really explained. The history of Marco and Martina’s relationship is never explored. The circumstances of Mateo’s birth, whether they planned to have a son or whether things were more accidental, are also omitted. What is explained, through careful dialogue, is the fact that Martina is an immigrant to Italy from an unspecified South American country, though one can rule out Brazil as she speaks Spanish rather than Portuguese.
From the start of the film Martina expresses a deeply founded unhappiness with her boyfriend and her life in general. We watch her make an anguished phone call to her mother where she laments not being able to find the passports and her desperation in trying to flee Italy. Both parents hold their son in extremely high regard and both want what they believe to be best for him. In Martina’s eyes, that means absconding with him to South America. For Marco, that means the family staying together in Bari no matter what it takes. He proposes that the two of them separate and live in separate houses, maintaining joint custody of Mateo. He also proposes moving to a city in Italy where Martina might be happier and making more money.
Marco is committed to maintaining the solidarity of his family no matter what. Martina, on the other hand, is hearing none of it. She insists that she cannot stay with him and be happy. She repeatedly accuses him of being a violent person, though she never elaborates what she means by these accusations and there are absolutely no instances in which we see Marco actually do anything overtly violent. Once or twice he catches Martina’s arm when she tries to run away from an argument or conversation, but never does he hit her or Mateo or anything of that kind. Regardless, Martina does find the passports, does flee back to the western hemisphere with her son, and Marco, as any father would, pursues them.
The plot of the film honestly feels quite bizarre considering the lack of explanation or backstory. The reasons for Martina’s flight are kept vague and the couple’s feelings toward each other are left unexplored. A reasonable explanation for Martina’s seemingly unjustified unhappiness and anger toward her partner could be the presence of a mental illness. If this is the case though, it is not something that comes through clearly in the film. The only way we would know that Martina is mentally unwell is if we guess that she is, something that Marra may not have had in mind at all while making the film. However, assuming that Martina is clinically depressed, that would mean that the potential of this film is utterly unreached. Marra had an opportunity to create a candid and detailed artistic portrait exploring the state of mental illness and family courts in Italy and South America, but this is not what he does with this film. Instead, he crafted an ambiguous, somewhat faltering film that examines very little. All that being said, First Light isn’t entirely bad, just a little misguided and a little boring. But it is still worth a watch if you’d like to walk away feeling a little confused.
First Light is screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema festival. It was directed by Vincenzo Marra and stars Daniela Ramírez, Riccardo Scamarcio, and Gianni Pezzolla.
Photo credits: Film Society of Lincoln Center.