Homecoming: Filmmaker Ricardo Preve returns with a discovery story of a missing World War II sailor

In the course of telling the story of a sunken Italian submarine, Ricardo Preve brought home the remains of the only sailor who died on a remote Red island. Photo courtesy of VAFF In the course of telling the story of a sunken Italian submarine, Ricardo Preve brought home the remains of the only sailor who died on a remote Red island. Photo courtesy of VAFF

It started with a chance remark. In 2014, former Crozet resident Ricardo Preve was off the coast of Sudan to film sharks. At the end of his stay in the treacherous shallow waters surrounding thousands of islands in the archipelago, “A guy told me an Italian submarine sank here,” says Preve.

That detail sent Preve on a years-long effort to tell the story of the Macallé, which went down in June 1940, and the one sailor who didn’t make it home.

Because the Macallé was the first Italian sub to sink in World War II, its navy formed a commission of inquiry and produced a 300-page report, complete with interviews of the 44 sailors who survived. That report and those interviews practically became the script for Coming Home, says Preve.

The Macallé was the first submarine to be deployed in tropical conditions, says Preve, and the temperature in the Red Sea topped 100 degrees. Use of a poisonous chemical coolant compounded the disaster.

Preve led an international dive team back to Barra Musa Kebir, a desert island slightly larger than a football field, to try to find the sub, which, after the crew had escaped, according to the report, slipped off a reef into “an abyss,” he says.

From the government account, he knew that one sailor, Carlo Acefalo, had died on the island, and while there, Preve found what he believed was Acefalo’s grave. But it took three years to get permits to excavate it. Because he had rented a dive boat and said nothing about searching for a submarine, “We got into trouble with the Sudanese government,” says Preve.

“I realized we had a film,” he says. “We began interviewing descendants of the crew.” He went to Castiglione Falletto, now an expensive wine-growing area, where Acefalo had grown up at a time when people were very poor, he says.

Before he got the permit to return to Barra Musa Kebir, Preve built a scale replica of the submarine in Argentina. In July 2017, “I filmed a historical recreation of the event in Buenos Aires, where I have my people and it’s cheaper,” he says.

The filming took place as Preve faced his own personal tragedy. His daughter Erika, a Western Albemarle and UVA grad, had died in March 2017 at 29 years old.

“Thanks to cinema,” says Preve, “I was able to overcome my tremendous grief in losing Erika.”

He also took “a huge gamble doing a historical recreation without knowing if we could get [back] on the island,” he says.

Documentaries have evolved since the days they were “didactic and tensionless,” says Preve of his reenactment. He built the submarine and filmed the sailors’ harrowing ordeal seeking rescue from the desert island before they were captured by the British because it’s “more interesting than talking heads,” he explains. “I try to avoid talking heads.”

In October 2017, Preve’s team was able to excavate Acefalo’s grave. It took another year for Sudan to release the remains. On November 24, 2018, “We put him next to his mother”—78 years after he died and on the same day she was born in 1894, according to the marker on her grave, says Preve.

The reaction in Italy, where Coming Home has aired on television several times, has been tremendous, says Preve. “People all over Italy are writing me.” The film has also done well on the festival circuit, with Preve getting the gold at the Los Angeles Motion Picture Festival for best documentary director.

Renowned local documentary filmmaker Geoff Luck met Preve about a decade ago. “What’s interesting about Rick is that he works in fiction and nonfiction,” says Luck. Preve approaches a factual story with an “adroit use of the storytelling techniques of fiction.”

Adds Luck, “He’s constantly finding interesting, intriguing stories.”

Preve has spent the past five years in Genoa. He’ll show Coming Home at the Virginia Film Festival, where he used to be on the board of directors. “It is also coming home for me,” he says. October 24, the day of the screening, is his birthday. “Erika is buried in Albemarle County, and so many friends and family live here.”

Coming Home will screen on Thursday at 6pm at Violet Crown cinema.

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