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Conveying the immensity of the ongoing migrant crisis, which is costing thousands of lives each year as it puts European unity and values sorely to the test, has proven far too great a task for news reporting. Where journalism leaves off, Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare) begins. It takes a unique documentary filmmaker like Gianfranco Rosi to capture the drama through the periscope of his camera focused on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa. There wave upon waves of desperate boat people bring their dramas, tragedies and emergencies to Europe’s shore. It is there that the Italian navy and coast guard rescue as many survivors as they can.
The humor and compassion that Rosi brought to the denizens of Rome’s ring road in Sacro G.R.A., which won the Venice Golden Lion in 2013 in a surprise jury verdict, are still very much present, but here they illuminate a subject of far greater interest and import. For this reason Fire at Sea is the better film and should be able to find larger audiences, at least in countries familiar with the migrant crisis. No time is wasted on furnishing background information, nor is there any hint of what becomes of the people — mostly Africans, some Syrians — who survive the fearful sea journey in overloaded boats. A viewer coming cold to the film may find too many questions left unanswered.
Yet Jacopo Quadri’s admirable editing job contains its own perfect symmetry, alternating adventurous, often dramatic rescue operations with the quiet life of the fishermen and their families who inhabit the island. Taking the courageous decision not to intermingle the two groups, Rosi nevertheless shows the subtle changes that have come over the islanders since the boats began arriving. If the film has a main character, it is Samuele, a rambunctious 12-year-old who spends his time outdoors with a pal, practicing his homemade slingshot on the local birds and cacti, trying to get his sea legs aboard his father’s fishing boat. As it gradually becomes apparent, this innocent play has some uneasy undertones. Though shown humorously in a visit to the doctor, Samuele has eye problems and breathing difficulties linked to anxiety, and the way he obsessively shoots an imaginary gun isn’t too reassuring, either.
All this is presented in an extremely subtle way. Rosi captures the old-world atmosphere of Lampedusa not just in images of the barren, scrubby island and its rocky shores, but through generous excerpts of Sicilian tunes with titles like “The Little Donkey” and “The Cart Driver’s Love”. They are heard on the radio in the kitchen of an elderly couple, and broadcast by a delightful local DJ who is obviously a connoisseur of the genre. Bent over his monitors and mike in a darkened studio, at first he could be mistaken for navy personnel scouting the rough waters of the Mediterranean.
This segues smoothly into some breathtaking footage aboard real cruisers and warships as they patrol the sea for boats in peril. Their giant radar devices spin around as a disembodied Italian voice begs a sinking ship to give its position. Perhaps because the person calling can’t understand him, or doesn’t know the coordinates, he continues responding with a heartbreaking “God save us!”
Whereas most filmmakers would follow a rescue op from start to finish, Rosi never satisfies the audience’s curiosity in this way. He creates drama instead through a careful choice of emotionally resonant details, which convey much more. For instance, the shiny thermal blankets which look like Christmas wrapping paper give a group of immigrants a surreal sci-fi look as they file off a boat at night.
Very little is shown in the camps where migrants are temporarily housed. (Though not stated in the film, they are then generally assigned to various regions of Italy and taken there by ship.) In a striking scene that explains all that is needed, Rosi films a group of young men singing and giving “testimony” to their plight: bombed in Nigeria, they fled through the Sahara desert where many died of thirst and exhaustion, then to Libya where many more died or were imprisoned, until they embarked on their perilous sea journey. Only 30 out of 90 passengers survived the trip.
In another key scene, the island’s doctor shows images of a boy covered with chemical burns from the mixture of boat fuel and sea water, while he describes his nightmarish job of examining the dead.
These terrible scenes are subsequently mitigated by gentle humor, like that of the doctor with a pregnant woman, trying to determine the sex of her twins with ultrasound. His English doesn’t go beyond the basics, however, and he struggles to make himself understood by his African patient. It isn’t laugh-out-loud, but helps put the tragedies into some kind of human perspective. In the end this compassionate overview is the film’s main take-away.
Production companies: 21Uno Film, Istituto Luce-Cinecitta, Stemal Entertainment, Les Films D’Ici, Rai Cinema, Arte France Cinema
Director, screenwriter: Gianfranco Rosi
Producers: Donatella Palermo, Gianfranco Rosi, Serge Lalou, Camille Laemle, Roberto Ciccutto, Paolo Del Brocco, Martine Saada, Olivier Pere.
Director of photography: Gianfranco Rosi
Editor: Jacopo Quadri
World sales: Doc & Film International
No rating, 108 minutes
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