A young engineer, Beto (Vito Sanz), is assigned to go to the North African city of Melilla in order to work on border fencing to keep African immigrants from illegally crossing over to mainland Europe. When Beto arrives, he becomes involved with Nagore (Anna Alarcón), who guides him through the complex situation facing Melilla with a typically hard-headed attitude towards the migrants. However, as Beto continues to work on the design of the fencing, his growing awareness of the harsh conditions that the migrants face pushes him into a state of conflict. Which matters more – his job or his morality?
Director Trueba, who also wrote the screenplay, effectively uses Beto’s personal journey to convey the harrowing conditions faced by African migrants attempting to use Melilla as a gateway to mainland Europe without compromising either narrative strand. Beto’s growing awareness of the questionable morality of his job raises the thorny issue of what to do with dealing with illegal African migrants trying to enter Europe in a manner that feels organic to his character as well as avoiding coming across as overly preachy.
This final aspect is helped by the inclusion of the character of Nagore, whose cynical, somewhat bigoted approach to the migrants not only adds a level of ambiguity to her relationship with the less problematic Beto, but also begins to change his mind regarding the treatment of the Africans. A final narrative twist further raises questions about Nagore’s character and places the audience in Beto’s shoes when it comes to his resulting confusion.
By using Beto’s journey as the main narrative focus, Trueba effectively uses him as a surrogate for the audience’s growing awareness of the migration issue, with his discovery of the African migrants’ struggles corresponding to information being revealed to the audience. Sanz’s empathetic and relatable performance further helps to ensure that Beto’s character development not only comes across convincingly, but also that the gravity of the situation regarding the migrants is sufficiently conveyed to the audience. A weaker performance would have rendered this message meaningless.
Ultimately, On This Side of the World serves to highlight the moral dilemma faced regarding the treatment of African migrants to Europe through a character study on one man. It is to Trueba’s credit that he manages to balance both the political and personal aspects of the narrative without one taking precedence over the other and compromising the entire film as a result.