Fire at Sea

Capturing life on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a frontline in the European migrant crisis.


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  • ★★★★ review by Doug Dibbern on Letterboxd

    I sometimes make a distinction with friends between Slow Cinema for the Youth and Slow Cinema for Adults. The former uses the long take for two reasons. First, it aims to instill painful bodily discomfort in the viewer akin to riding some sort of endurance roller coaster; the (presumably male) viewer feels a sense of masculine accomplishment for enduring this strain. At the same time, it seems to me to be a calculated gesture to position oneself in a certain way to succeed on the film festival circuit. In this first group, I’d put people like – and please don’t hate me for this, Young Male Cinephiles -- Lisandro Alonso, Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, and even Bela Tarr, though I love Tarr – partly because he’s much funnier and more baroque than these others. In the second group, I’d put people like Apichatpong, the late Kiarostami and Panahi, and now Gianfranco Rosi as well. These people seem to be into a more contemplative cinema, less painful and more thoughtful. I loved this movie because its meditative temporal quality enhanced its unusual narrative structure and mixture of content. Why, after all, would you juxtapose the deaths of African migrants at sea with the story of a young boy and his sling shot? This idiosyncratic, ruminative composition intensified both its intellectual and emotional qualities.

  • ★★★★½ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd

    With the EU exit disaster developing day by day in the UK and slowly finding its legs worldwide, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary about immigration into the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East is a horror story released with uncomfortable timing. The film picked up the Golden Bear earlier this year in Berlin and rather than find a political route into subject, Rosi takes a non-judgemental stance, allowing the imagery to largely speak for itself.

    In recent years the island of Lampedusa, just south of Sicily, has become an entrance point into Europe for thousands of refugees. There are three stories being told here; one through the eyes of Samuele, a local 12-year-old boy, a local doctor that attends to the young boys minor ailments and the medical checks for the arriving refugees travelling so far, dangerously crammed into death traps disguised as boats.

    Samuele is a charismatic boy and fascinating to watch, following him round the island with a close friend and witnessing home life with his family, who have fished on the sea for generations. The camera always remain observant, never intrusive, calmly taking in the daily routines as life absurdly has to continue as normal. That creates a sense these events occur far more naturally, showing this environment undisturbed by the presence of a filmmaker not there to manipulate things by forcing a narrative.

    There are no individual perspectives seen from the refugees point of view, which perhaps would’ve been unfair to do so given each one has their own trauma to reveal. The resilience and courage they all have to show embarking on these trips is patently clear and the brief shots of mass, motionless bodies being wrapped and cleared from a newly arrived boat later in the film are images you will struggle to forget.

    The doctor (there are no others on the island) is the only person to be ‘interviewed’ in a traditional sense and his powerful recollections of handling the countless dead men, women and children that have arrived at their shores reveal a haunted man. But unlike many of the locals, the need for his professional expertise has rendered him unable to look the other way.

    By choosing to focus on Samuele and his family as the main focal point, the question Rosi is really posing to us all is how willing are we to keep turning our heads. Tellingly, the young boy is also being treated for a lazy left eye, where images are not received by one side of the brain, causing him to briefly wear an eye patch. The shape of cultural boundaries in a world we all share are changing more rapidly than many people want to admit to but blocking it out, rather than evolving, appears to be chosen path we have decided to embark upon.

  • ★★★★★ review by Jimmy on Letterboxd

    it's been a while since I've seen a film which achieves such thematic urgency and relevance, formal audacity, and emotionally devastating final sequences as Fire at Sea does. it's a tough but necessary film.

    this incredibly timely quasi-documentary about the European migration crisis uses the juxtaposition of the harrowing journey to a safer land against the banal and ordinary lives of that land's current occupants not as a cheap gimmick, but as a way to remind the viewer of their willful ignorance of the struggles facing the many people who flee Africa and West Asia for Europe. that the dominant focus is on the daily routines of an ordinary, though charismatic, young boy in Lampedusa and not the countless stories of the migrants reinforces the feeling that most of us choose to look away from the issue and continue our lives with normalcy, as does the revelation of the boy's near-blindness in one eye. but when we are shown the perils of the journey the refugees endure, there is no ignoring the truth; Gianfranco Rosi presents horrifying images with such frankness and boldness that the urgency of this crisis is strongly reinforced, yet without a moralizing and heavy-handed agenda. he begs us to ask, "what is the contextual reality of my individual struggle? what am I to do about this problem? should I sideline my own life to become an agent of change, and if I should, am I capable of that?" Rosi's approach would feel objective and apolitical if the film didn't make clear how much compassion he has, and we all should have, for those migrants who face dehydration, disease, and death for an opportunity to escape the extreme persecution and suffering which has become routine in their homelands.

  • ★★★★½ review by Still Here🏳️‍🌈 on Letterboxd


    Contrasts create the shock that this film is. And I have been using the word "shock" with this festival a lot since it definitely has been more or less shocking. But the shock that this film is, is rather different to Psycho. Here we actually see dead bodies and explore the cold tranquility that must be maintained while facing the death itself. This cold tranquility indeed is extremely freezing compared to the emotional charge of the images but it tells its own stories about the duty and responsibility. But on the other hand this also reveals our own relationship to this crisis - how we react to the people who react very coldly (because they must, we shouldn't forget that but if the viewer is under strong emotions, it could be forgotten). What the film revealed to me was how I reacted to all of this - it told about me and it already in itself tells how we, humans, process such things. We think about ourselves because only through our own experience can we understand what is going around us. This film tells everything based on "how you react". It has created its own ways to reflect the crisis and asks us to start our own self-reflection.

    Rosi portrays young boy from the island of Lampedusa who plays around while at the same time acting a bit older than he is. He listens to the stories of his grandparents and the stories compare to the images we see from the crisis in order to make us understand how history repeats itself. It feels as if something is happening somewhere far away - to an ordinary European, this crisis that these refugees experience is as far as the second world war: still both things do exist. The sea means dreams to the boy but at the same time it is nightmare to the refugees. Rosi portrays the island and then he portrays the sea where refugees float on their boats. This contrast creates room for countless nuances, emotions and reflections. The film isn't going to be the same to any of us. The film has chosen hard duty but it isn't at all hyperbole: this film defines how we are going to continue our lives on this era. It doesn't shy away from these dark subjects but goes to the center of European life and at the same time to the lives of those who are searching for something better. It reveals the conflicts and throws us like the sea throws the people who somehow digress close to it.

    So what then? Should we be happy that we have what we have? Should we join the struggle? Should we close our hearts? The question is: what should we do? This is a film that continues the tradition of neorealism - it is partly staged, partly documented but very closely attached to the tradition of what made Italian cinema great in the first place. In the traditions that make today's cinema great in the first place. It is extremely hard to continue after a film like this...

  • ★★★★½ review by Michael Scott on Letterboxd

    The cinematic image has a particular specificy. It can present reality in such a way that we don't necessarily feel the need to question its veracity. We know that this has opened us up to some egregious oversights throughout history, yet we still regularly settle back into digestive complacency.

    The cinematic image can also have a particular expansiveness. In the space on either side, in the imperceptible cuts from scene to scene, it can carry more than its immediate projections denote. The chemistry of cinematic images can manifest with unexpected potency. It is not always apparent how it manages this, how a placid swirl of ideas can intensify into a maelstrom of emotions, especially when the constituent subjects appear worlds apart.

    On this front, I was particularly affected by Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi's carefully calculated efforts in Fire at Sea. I accepted its invitation to slow my pace, to consider the presented surroundings, to recalibrate my position in the world. I let his film wash over me. I let it surround me as I would any immersive documentary. And I came out shaken. More shaken than I could justify from stepping back over the experience.

    I didn't know why. The film, with its ostensibly freeform observational structure, barely registers as an exploration of its purported subject, the migrant flow from North Africa to Europe, yet it is one of the most powerful films I have experienced on this increasingly imperative issue.

    Rosi's focus, the small island of Lampedusa, situated 113 km from Tunisia and 2015 km from Sicily, is little more than a spot in the sea. We view it almost exclusively through the day to day life of Samuele, a fisherman's son who spends his time wandering the barren island and making slingshots to tear up local cacti. He visits the optometrist. He gets rowing lessons in the harbour. He eats spaghetti. He never comes into contact with a migrant vessel or the iron fleets that patrol the waters scooping and sorting the refugees from the sea. Yet the images of his life and their proximity to the hordes of lives adrift nearby has an unmentionable power.

    I returned to the cinema to attempt to unpack Fire at Sea, to pry apart its images, to dissect the way it presents its ideas and understand how Rosi, who stridently refuses to use his camera in the service of an open polemic, can devastate as he does. And how he can reach his lock-proofed endpoint without ever having put forward an argument.

    I was worried that in re-entering the film with an expressed critical intent (which is to say I intended to fight being absorbed into Rosi's world again) that I may neuter Fire at Sea's film's enigmatic compassion, that its impact would diminish, but that was not the case. Instead, in being aware of Rosi's choices: his sensitivity to space, his subversion of fear and his savvy representation of community, his film seared anew.

    Enigma intact. Compassion reinforced. So, all I offer here are some observations in kind.

    That Rosi's juxtapositioning of Samuele's relative isolation, his relative freedom, his relative loneliness and his relative maturity, against the de-identified, cramped, quarantined refugees (or boat people as we've been trained to call them here) invites the audience, open-endedly, to project on the opportunities presented by their futures, especially relative to their pasts.

    That relativity is at the core of most responses on this issue - and to this film. That Samuele's world in any other situation would be read as a dead end; here it presents as a gateway to generations of prosperity.

    That the impossibility of the refugees' journey and the odds for their survival is underscored by Rosi's reluctance to give them an individual existence. He presents the flood of bodies that right wing politicians build their rhetoric around. Yet those bodies are flooding in ways that amplify their desperation. Their salvation, read across impossibly relieved, barely alive faces, is blistering.

    That the world is large even in an enclosed space. The Mediterranean is an endless, deadly expanse and Europe is a pinpoint with nary a lighthouse.

    That these two worlds are disparate places where boats look different, where boundaries are different and differently controlled, where technology can be used to delineate life and death.

    That disparate worlds can speak a common language. Given space and a football, community can be rebuilt in moments.

    That there are hundreds upon thousands of stories here that are ending and beginning.

    That spaghetti can be mesmerising.

    That from the hardly-functioning eyes of a child, the world can only be seen from one perspective. That we are all hampered by similar constrictions. Our compassion for others is bound by our conception of the world. The enormity of our world and the suffering within it cannot be readily conceived by the human mind, even at its most compassionate.

    It is that last point that stayed with me most violently. Life goes on, even on the frontline. The placid day to day of Rosi's film, the normalcy of Lampedusa’s tranquillity, exists just out of sight of these hopes and horrors. The space between us is relative. That distance can be manipulated. Rosi’s images and his chosen viewpoints expand and contract this space, culturally and physically. But ultimately, his precisely composed shots unmoor us and leave us questioning how far away we are from this experience.

    And it is not that far.

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