On a map, the island of Lampedusa looks like a flat pebble that Sicily has kicked toward Tunisia. Up close, it’s a hilly, semi-arid terrain of winding streets and scrub vegetation. The settled population of 6,000 Italians, many engaged in the traditional business of fishing, is augmented today by tourists who enjoy Lampedusa’s beach hotels, and by the hundreds of desperate migrants who have survived the smugglers’ passage from Africa and now crowd the island’s holding camps, which sometimes catch fire. One of the most recent blazes was reported in May, a few months after Gianfranco Rosi’s superb documentary about the refugee route to Lampedusa, Fire at Sea, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin festival.
Rosi does not bother with the tourists. He does show you the migrants in their wretchedness and the places where they’re kept, sometimes being cared for graciously and sometimes just processed. You see the ships and helicopters sent to rescue the migrants from their foundering boats and recover the corpses. You also see the coast, with its cliffs poking like splayed fingers into the sea; the fishermen’s workaday harbor; the landscape with its cactus patches and gnarly trees; and one ordinary local family, whose 12-year-old boy Samuele is the opposite of a point-of-view character. We see what he doesn’t.
Rosi’s previous film, Sacro GRA (2013), presented glimpses of various people’s lives on and around a single location, the highway that encircles Rome. In a similar spirit, Fire at Sea examines a ceaseless mass movement through the paradoxical method of constructing a deep sense of place. After the film’s opening text—a bit of exposition that is Rosi’s only authorial intervention, citing the number of boat people who have tried to reach Europe through Lampedusa over the past 20 years, and the number who have perished—the first scene is not a picture of migrants at sea but of Samuele on land, busily exploring an overgrown yard. Rosi watches patiently as Samuele tramps through the brush, climbs a tree, and selects a branch to cut. (He’s making a slingshot.) At this point, despite the introductory text, you might imagine that Fire at Sea is going to be about a crewcut Italian boy in blue jeans and how well he’s embedded in his surroundings.
Then Rosi cuts to his main theme—but you still don’t see any migrants. You just hear them on a distress call, over an image of rotating antennas, with a coast guard officer insistently asking “What is your position?” while a woman’s voice answers only, “Please, we beg you.” The deck of a ship comes into view. A searchlight cuts through the night, playing over the water. Nothing. Whatever happened is invisible for the moment, and distant from Samuele. His grandmother learns about it from the radio the next morning as she bustles around the kitchen. Another boat sunk. Two hundred fifty dead.
For the rest of Fire at Sea, Rosi’s game is to bring the migrants and their plight gradually closer. You see some of them rescued by men in hazmat suits, questioned and photographed. In a pair of unforgettable scenes, a Nigerian man at a prayer service chants about the agonies his group endured and the deaths so many suffered, and an Italian doctor at his desk speaks of the unending horrors he’s dealt with and his sleepless nights. Eventually, toward the end, Rosi shows you the worst.
Meanwhile, in the alternating scenes, Samuele goes on as if oblivious. Is he? You can’t blame a kid for living a normal life—but the boy turns out to have anxiety attacks and an eye that doesn’t work, and something he’s been absorbing from the air moves him to want to kill songbirds and mimic the recoil of a machine gun. On his island, how much normality is possible?
Rosi, of course, does not explicitly pose such questions. His restraint is reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s—though his use of second-unit cinematography and Foley bring his work a step closer to fiction. Constructed as much as reported, Fire at Sea is a beautiful artifact presented for your contemplation. It is also an act of conscience. And it is harrowing.