The film wastes no time delivering its inciting incident--while driving back home to Italy after a vacation to Tunisia, lovers Anna (de Medeiros) and Mara (Antonia Liskova) are stopped for a border check. When Mara can't find her passport, Anna checks the trunk--where she sees something that shocks her. She calmly closes it, then waits until they have re-entered their homeland before stopping the car and showing Mara her find: Anis (Mounir Ouadi), a young Moroccan who paid hotel workers to hide him in their car so he could sneak into the country.
The conflict quickly forces the couple's personalities--and problems--to surface. Anna is the kindhearted one who wants to please, always with a smile on her face; while Mara's temper belies an anger we soon realize stems from an emotionally abusive father now confined to a nursing home--and from depression over being stuck in a menial, dead-end job at a shoe factory owned by Anna's well-off family. The two aren't happy ("You never tell me important things," Mara says), which may be why Anna jumps at a new distraction--the chance to help Anis start a new life.
After being dropped off at the train station with some money, Anis has a change of heart and heads to Anna's home, where she lives with Mara. She lets him stay--and asks brother Salvio (Vitaliano Trevisan) to give the boy a job at the warehouse. That doesn't sit well with Mara, who becomes increasingly irritated with his presence (which has also slowed down their love life). She clashes with Anis, and soon feels even more uncomfortable after a social engagement with Anna's family--including a homophobic mother--doesn't go well.
Anis provides an escape for both women, who initially skirt around their lesbian relationship. Anis thinks they're sisters when he moves in, and tells both of them how important it is to get married and have a family ("You need a man, to make kids and a family"). He has his own tragic story--his parents are dead (a claim Mara doesn't buy), and no other friends or relatives are part of his life. Things begin to look up at the factory, where Anis quickly impresses Salvio with his work ethic. But when Anis discovers one of his co-workers is stealing shoes, he is forced to make an important decision.
Shelter Me unfolds slowly, revealing different layers of its characters along the way--de Medeiros and Liskova both shine in roles that aren't as one-dimensional as they appear at first. The social class difference between Anna and Mara produces the film's biggest tension, forcing the women to question what they want and who they are. Anis shakes both of them out of their comfort zones, giving us a window into some emotional extremes (on both ends) that propel the story to its conclusion.
The film navigates trickier waters toward the end, and the lead performances are strong enough to handle them. The story isn't simple--like the trio, this isn't a happy film, nor does it provide a tidy ending. You'll ache for all of them, and most likely you'll be left in thought--one key plot development is hinted at, providing a different lens to view the film through. And one character is given an interesting (and for me, unexpected) transformation, showing a surprising side that will leave you questioning things even more.
And that's one of Shelter Me's beauties--its ability to convey deep emotions that can change in meaning depending on which way you see the film and its characters. How your mind thinks and your heart feels--and not just theirs--is just as important. As in life, there are no easy answers here. But as the film tries to convey three sad and lost souls' need for love, escape and protection--a need we can all relate to on some level--you may learn a little about yourself in the process.
(And if you need some cheering up afterward, I'll be back before you can say "blueberry pie"...)