A filmmaker with an affinity for the dark, Daniel Espinosa allowed himself to get off track. After attracting global (and Hollywood) attention with 2010 Swedish thriller “Easy Money,” the Chilean-born, Sweden-based director couldn’t resist the lure of making an American studio movie. Or three. Coming on the heels of ill-advised snabba cash project “Morbius” in 2022, “Madame Luna” is either his penance or else simply a return to form. Either way, this tense, tragic contemporary immigrant drama feels infinitely better suited to Espinosa’s sensibility, however roundabout the path to getting there was.
Where Espinosa’s last four credits allowed him to work with an enviable roster of English-speaking stars — Denzel Washington, Tom Hardy, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jared Leto — this smaller, more sociological character study calls for unknowns across the board. In first-time leading lady Meninet Abraha Teferi, Espinosa has found a ferocious raw talent with piercing eyes and a powerful screen presence. Even so, “Madame Luna” has an infinitely trickier road ahead than any of his previous credits, and that’s not even counting the lawsuit facing its producers.
In Europe, where the film is set, audiences are exhausted by stories of immigrant strife. But “Madame Luna” isn’t like the vast majority of those movies, which mean well in their humanistic portrayals of pitiful African exiles, struggling to cross the Mediterranean, only to be turned away, detained or exploited upon arrival. Taking more of a genre-film approach, Espinosa and co-writers Suha Arraf and Maurizio Braucci find inspiration in the ambiguous morality of their milieu — specifically, a Calabrian refugee camp, located at the southern toe of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula. What if, instead of the typical victim story, they focused on a character whom either side might see as a villain?
Strong and resilient, Abraha Teferi’s title character no longer goes by the name “Madame Luna.” In fact, this Eritrean survivor stiffens when she hears it spoken in the street, nervous that the authorities might identify her. Madame Luna was a criminal. She smuggled people out of Libya into Europe for profit. But that was a lifetime ago. Now she’s stuck alongside the passengers of a risky crossing she helped to arrange, a fugitive among refugees. Looking out for herself alone, she has reverted to her birth name, Almaz. As soon as she can get a new passport, she intends to leave everyone else behind.
Almaz, aka Madame Luna, is hardly conventional hero material. But the actor Abraha Teferi makes her a compellingly complicated character, ripe for redemption. (Redemption can often be a reductive concept in movies, and yet, one senses the turmoil in Almaz and longs for her to escape her illicit dealings.) She isn’t simply callous; the world has been cruel, as Espinosa reveals incredibly late in the story, when she finally gets her hearing before an asylum committee.
Opening and closing with shots of open sea, “Madame Luna” spares us the horrific flashbacks, trusting Abraha Teferi’s performance to convey what she’s been through. Adopting an occasionally disorienting, immersive aesthetic, DP Juan Sarmiento G. observes Almaz in the present, shooting handheld as this resourceful ex-criminal navigates the claustrophobic corridors of the detention center. The place looks like a cross between a prison and a housing project, with blind corners where nasty surprises can catch characters off-guard. In one scene, a car barrels past, nearly killing a pedestrian; in another, law enforcement officers unexpectedly seize Almaz from behind.
The authorities suspect she helped her roommate to escape, but just as they’re arresting her, an aid worker named Nunzia (Claudia Potenza) intercedes, enlisting Almaz as her interpreter. Now indebted when all she really wants is to disappear, Almaz finds herself pulled into an entirely new scheme, no less corrupt than the one she was running back in Libya. Using her command of multiple languages, Almaz motivates and ruthlessly manages her fellow immigrants, convincing them to serve as a low-cost labor force, while the local mafia pockets the profits.
If Almaz has misgivings, she doesn’t show them — at least, not until she’s recognized by a fellow refugee named Eli (Hilyam Weldemichael), who begs her help in getting a relative out of Libya. By agreeing to assist Eli, Almaz inevitably complicates her own plans, taking responsibility for someone else in a system swarming with predators. There’s no clear path to doing what’s right in this quagmire, as audiences learn when the fate of the last person Almaz helped is revealed. That setback merely underscores the stakes and the mounting sense of doom.
Somewhat predictably, “Madame Luna” winds up putting Eli in peril, with no one but Almaz to save her — a relatively conventional, Paul Schrader-style plot development that allows the movie to climax in a blaze of glory. Espinosa can handle that kind of action in his sleep. And yet, this movie means something — not in the activist sense of so many other immigrant stories. But “Madame Luna” is more than a paycheck project. Like his main character, the director is finally taking responsibility for some of his past choices and doing something that matters.