Venice 2023 review: The Oceans Are the Real Continents (Tommaso Santambrogio)

“A poetic, poignant and beautifully constructed work that is both artistically resonant and deeply moving.”

The town of San Antonio de los Baños is home to various people – amongst them are a couple exploring their young but dynamic relationship, a pair of mischievous boys with aspirations far bigger than their small island could provide, and an elderly woman who spends her days quietly reading through letters sent to her by presumably a former lover, who we gather died during the war. These intersecting stories form the foundation for The Oceans Are the Real Continents (Los océanos son los verdaderos continentes), the narrative feature-length directorial debut of Tommaso Santambrogio, who adapts his own short film of the same title which was essentially a dress rehearsal for this film. It is a fascinating and curious story of a community that has been hidden from the public consciousness due to its perceived lack of remarkable traits; despite being only a stone’s throw away from the country’s capital, the film finds an abundance of meaning in the banalities of this small town’s everyday life. Santambrogio finds inspiration in some unexpected places and weaves a compelling story about resistance and the importance of audacity, which is a melancholy and evocative depiction of the lives of ordinary people who aspire towards more than what they were given, even if they realize it may be a fool’s errand. A fascinating character study filled with unique ideas and unforgettable images, there is very little doubt that this film represents the continued growth of one of the most exciting new voices in contemporary experimental cinema.

At first glance, The Oceans Are the Real Continents seems to be a series of vignettes set within this small town, where the only common factor between them is the location. The stories barely intersect, and the film jumps between them without any coherent rhyme or reason. However, as we venture through this film, we find that the director has a plan with this material, and as we often see in these more abstract, vaguely surreal works, the simplest explanation is usually the most poignant. In the case of this film, we are introduced to three sets of characters, each set representing people whose minds occupy different time periods – an older woman dwelling in the past as she reflects on her memories of a better time in her life; two boys who are looking forward to the future, where they can realize their dreams; and a couple who are doing their best to live in the present and cherish every moment as it comes to them. Perhaps it is a simplistic way to break down this film, but considering how much of The Oceans Are the Real Continents is told through non-verbal cues in which images are the primary driving factor, there is merit in finding the deeper meaning simmering beneath the surface. Many profound conversations are provoked throughout this film, and Santambrogio draws on some fascinating ideas as he constructs these narratives, each one with a complete arc that carries significant weight both as an individual story and in relation to the others.

Santambrogio is clearly a filmmaker who finds his inspiration in the images more than the narrative, using the former to guide and shape the latter, which is not an easy accomplishment. The actors in this film are all wonderful and their incredible expressivity and ability to convey an abundance of emotions through their words and gestures is one of the many aspects that aid in the development of the film’s ideas. However, the aspects of The Oceans Are the Real Continents that keep us most engaged are visual – you would struggle to find a film from this year that has a more poetic and striking use of cinematography, especially in how it uses every frame to tell a story. Filming in gorgeous black and white, the director plunges us into a world that comes to life through vibrant images. Despite the lack of colour, there is never a moment when this film feels lacking in vivacity and unique energy – every emotion and sensation is curated through the images, as well as the story that accompanies them, making the film a multi-layered experience that plays off every one of our senses, but never feels anything less than authentic. Many filmmakers have endeavoured to capture the unique landscapes of Cuba, particularly the distinct Caribbean influence embedded in the small towns scattered across the island, but this film may be the most gorgeous and striking, every detail adding to an overall experience that manages to be both visually arresting and narratively profound.

Perhaps its ambiguities may be initially frustrating for some viewers, as the opening few scenes can feel like they lack cohesion and only start to come together after we step back and assess these individual stories to find the small but essential elements that connect them. However, Santambrogio was not intent on making a film that provided us with all the answers, which is precisely the reason why The Oceans Are the Real Continents feels like such an effective, compelling piece of cinema. It moves at a slower pace, allowing us to meditate on every image, even those that don’t seem to contribute to any of the three main narratives (but ultimately even the most inconsequential insertions carry meaning), making for an engaging and fascinating experience. There are many potential interpretations of these stories, and Santambrogio intentionally keeps them slightly vague as a means to prevent any definitive solution, since there is more value in the viewer’s perspective than anything he could offer by providing a clear and concise resolution. However, its overall intentions are both clear and successful, as it presents a vibrant and meaningful portrait of a small Hispanic community in a town that is suspended in time, holding onto its past while grasping desperately for the future. All of these components work together to create a poetic, poignant and beautifully constructed work that is both artistically resonant and deeply moving, providing invaluable insights into a fascinating but distant corner of the world and its occupants.