Credit: Tommaso Santambrogio
by Travis DeShong Featured Film

Oceans Are the Real Continents — Tommaso Santambrogio [Venice ’23 Review]

September 7, 2023

To director Tommaso Santambrogio, to tell a story about people, you ought to tell the story of the places they inhabit. That could be why he favors long and wide static shots in his debut feature, Oceans are the Real Continents. The film, an expansion of the 2019 short of the same name, is a visual treat, and its cinematography, courtesy of Lorenzo Casadio Vannucci, elevates Santambrogio’s intimately documentarian approach with splendid compositions, finding harmonies in symmetry, framing, and depth to achieve a stark and subtly ornate beauty. Burnt-out cars and baseball diamonds, echoing caverns and open rooftops, abandoned theaters and factories, private and divided domestic interiors: Santambrogio’s take on San Antonio de los Baños boasts a gorgeous, painterly look. Though this reality is aestheticized, that beautification doesn’t obscure the Cuban town’s unrelenting desolation. If anything, the approach spotlights it, holding it in greater tension so the viewer has little choice but to accept it as they study each shot. The use of black-and-white photography imbues these surroundings with the sense of frozen environments, recalling old photographs resurrected from a family chest. It’s in this invocation of the past, and of memory, that Oceans draws its affecting power. The characters, trapped within larger, immutable circumstances, seek to define purpose as they exist in this living relic of a place, long past the revolutionary promises of an earlier era.

Oceans’ principal characters span the gamut of one human life. Frank and Alain, two nine-year-old friends, attend school and dream about future superstardom in Major League Baseball. Alex and Edith are a young 30-something couple who keep their spark alive through small adventures around their town’s deserted locales. Elderly Milagros stays afloat selling roasted peanut cones and spends most of her time in silence, listening to the radio or reading her beloved’s letters. Taken together, one notes the downward trajectory of life’s path. The age of endless dreaming, the vitality of youth, gives way to the grounding rhythms of adult life where true risks are required to keep loftier aspirations alive. Success and happiness are not guaranteed. Milagros’ existence is the most static and bleak of the three, with the words from her past love effectively her only remaining lifeblood. The characters periodically appear at the margins of each other’s narratives: Alex reminiscing about his own past baseball dreams while Frank and Alain play catch at the edge of the frame; Milagros selling her peanut cones outside of Edith’s performance as younger couples pass her by. While Oceans ultimately depicts a shared universe, the anxieties of separation are what prove central to the tone.

“Freedom is the essence of life,” one child recites during class, quoting the Cuban writer, philosopher, and martyr José Martí. But freedom has a cost. For Santambrogio’s characters, their home is not a place where they can flourish. Freedom to pursue success requires freedom from the familiar, increasingly decrepit place that raised them. As his family plans to immigrate to the United States, Frank wrestles with his ambivalent feelings about the sudden change. Edith is excited to take her art to European cities, while Alex struggles with his discomfort at being left behind. A radio report about Operation Carlota, providing historical context for the wartime letters, thematically connects the rupture of Milagros’ family to her country’s internationalist conflicts with U.S.-backed forces. Characters often prop up the West as a better quality of place, home to the Yankees and tasteful art crowds. “A first kiss should always be in Paris,” Alex remarks, as if the French city were the apogee of romantic fantasy. The allure of these richer, whiter places contends with the images and evocations of Cuban pride sprinkled throughout the film (“Our children are the best in the world. The healthiest, the most innocent,” reads one poster above Frank and Alain’s heads). Santambrogio forgoes any extended polemical diatribes, instead rooting the broadly political in his characters’ personal reckonings with identity, authenticity, and self-determination.

Oceans often functions on an allegorical level. Its characters are tools to serve that end as much as they are identifiable people, thanks in large part to their naturalistic performances, all playing their parts in a larger whole. The tonal differences between their scenes are sometimes subtle at best, harder to appreciate with the achromatic palette leveling things out into a single mood, and these scenes, themselves vignettes, tend to reduce the pacing to a slow drip. The logic between scene transitions can also feel random, made a bit more disappointing when held up against the few times the editing does reveal how sequences are placed in conversation with one another. Still, the film showing its seams isn’t enough to compromise its elegiac beauty. Oceans does require attentive patience from the viewer, but in exchange Santambrogio delivers a wistful and poetic journey sure to linger on in memory.

Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 1.