Fire at Sea

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Gianfranco Rosi

Starring

Maria Costa Pietro Bartolo Samuele Caruana

Anticipation.

Gianfranco Rosi’s second festival winner on the trot.

Enjoyment.

Mixes political and observational documentary to profound effect.

In Retrospect.

A major step-up from the quaint Sacro GRA.

Europe’s migrant crisis is brought into focus in this quietly thought-provoking documentary.

They say that when you’re purchasing a house, you should wait until the weather is neither rainy nor sunny. That way it won’t colour your assessment of the property before you hand over obscene amounts of money for it. In his 2013 Venice prize-winner, Sacro GRA, about the diversity of life connected by a Roman ring road, and this new film, about the sorry lot of African refugees passing through Italian waters, the skies – like the director – remain defiantly neutral.

Fire at Sea takes place on the craggy, stepping-stone island of Lampedusa which sits almost exactly half way between the Libyan capital of Tripoli and Sicily. Fishing is the island’s main industry, though that noble tradition is slowly being usurped. Boats are now used to assist the dangerously jam-packed rafts transporting those fleeing oppressive African regimes in search of a better life in Europe.

This is a political advocacy doc, but under a more artful guise. The horrendous conditions on these rickety rafts show that those willing to board have been left with no other choice. Hearing about the places from which they’re escaping, the risk becomes more rational. They know the odds of surviving the voyage are slim, but it’s a gamble they absolutely must take. Rosi films a refugee cataloguing the abuses he’s endured in the form of a rousing prayer-chant, and it’s a scene which succinctly captures the horrifying context of the so-called “migrant crisis” while criticising the mis-directed indignation of the west.

As with Sacro GRA, Rosi takes great pains to fuse subject with landscape. The elaborate seabound rescue missions are viewed as incidental to the life of errant schoolboy, Samuele, who’s presented as a carefree Dennis the Menace-type searching for ways to kill time. The film’s opening shot observes as he inelegantly scales a small tree to collect a branch that he can fashion into a catapult. With a pal, he then fires shards of slate into fat cactus leaves, taping them back up before wending his way home for tea.

Read our interview with Gianfranco Rosi

You might think that watching Samuele’s attempts to lighten his fairly mundane existence (the Chaplin-esque manner in which he eats spaghetti is a joy to behold) would bring some levity to the material, but the opposite is true. The film isn’t about Samuele, nor is it about the refugees, it’s about how these two words are subtly adjoined. Even though Lampedusa is a place where little actually happens, Samuele remains blissfully unaware that death and hardship are but a stone’s throw away. Without hectoring, pleading or instructing, the film uses this small (though highly pertinent) case study to examine the boundless breadth of human experience and the impossibility of calculating the inner-torment of our fellow man.

It celebrates individuality and shows how easy it is to take tranquil stability for granted. Fire at Sea feels like a distant but crisp echo of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist classic, Bicycle Thieves. It asks whether we have become desensitised to political atrocities. It also asks whether innocence is a possible state of being in a society where extreme suffering is always hovering in our collective blind spot.

Published 9 Jun 2016

Tags: Europe Migrant Crisis

Anticipation.

Gianfranco Rosi’s second festival winner on the trot.

Enjoyment.

Mixes political and observational documentary to profound effect.

In Retrospect.

A major step-up from the quaint Sacro GRA.

Read More

Can a documentary ever be truly objective?

By David Jenkins

Fire at Sea director Gianfranco Rosi on filming a rural family in their home in the middle of the migrant crisis.

Sacro GRA

By David Jenkins

This surprising winner of the Venice Golden Lion is a quaint, amusing if not particularly life-altering slice of Italian psychogeography.

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How cinema is tackling Europe’s austerity crisis

By Tom Bond

Miguel Gomes, Jacques Audiard and others are capturing a shifting continental mood.

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