There’s a particularly sobering sequence early on in Gianfranco Rosi’s pensive meditation on the migrant crises, in which we watch an elderly native of the Italian Pelagie isle Lampedusa as she potters about her kitchen listening to the radio. Through the airwaves, we hear reports announcing that a number of refugees originating from Africa and the Middle East have, overnight, been found dead in the water, after the craft carrying them to Europe was intercepted just off the coast. “Poor souls” she says, disheartened, her dejected reaction echoing the feelings felt by those of us who have watched this deplorable human rights disaster unfold in the past year.
Despite its dominance in both the press and international political circles though, many of us remain shamefully ignorant to the shattering realities of this ongoing situation. To date, some 65 million have been displaced from their homes, many as a result of conflicts that show no signs of perhaps ever being resolved, and it is believed that at least another 20 million remain in danger. Yet across the world, the pervading attitude remains reactionary: we may be willing to show solidarity, but appear opposed to offering any real support. However, as one Lampedusan islander profoundly states, “it’s the duty of every human being to help these people”.
Those searching for a confronting examination of the migration crisis are likely to be frustrated by Rosi’s quietly considered approach to the subject at hand. Fire At Sea, to its detriment, fails to tackle the topic with the sort of intensity suggested in the title – itself derived from a Sicilian wartime folk song. The director’s method is instead more observational, contrasting the peaceful lives of the island inhabitants with the precarious existence faced by those arriving in Lampedusa hoping to forge a new life in Europe.
Focusing in on 12-year-old Samuele, the nephew of a fisherman, and following him for a large portion of the run time as he explores the land around him, engaging with the local populace, Rosi’s style shares tonal similarities with the Italian neorealist films of De Sica & Rossellini; the devastating difference being that everything we see here is real. And though the lengthy intermissions spent in the company of the Lampedusan residents – which also include a doctor and a local DJ – may cause a periodic disconnect between audience and the art, there’s a enduringly traumatic intimacy to the scenes of asylum seekers being processed as they come ashore, or recalling their experiances spent inside a Libyan prison.
Most agonising are the stark snapshots of suffering taken aboard treacherous trawlers, packed to the rafters with refugees desperate to escape the turmoil of their respective homelands. When Rosi was awarded the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale, he said the film’s aim was to raise awareness of the migrant situation and indeed, the grave dangers faced by those crossing the ocean can be heard simply in Stefano Grosso’s haunting soundscape of choppy water and crashing waves. The message is clear; the sea can be a harsh mistress… but surely it’s humanity’s nescience that ultimately poses the greatest threat?
Director: Gianfranco Rosi
Writers: Gianfranco Rosi, Carla Cattani (idea)
Stars: Samuele Pucillo, Pietro Bartolo, Maria Costa
Runtime: 114 mins
Country; Italy, France