Fire at Sea

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


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  • ★★★★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 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.

  • ★★★★★ 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 VLxx 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...

  • ★★★★ review by Leo (Willem) van der Zanden 🔥⬇🏠 on Letterboxd

    Added to: 2016 Ranked

    A poetic dissection of a year on the island of Lampedusa at the height of the refugee crisis. In essence it presents the daily life of the inhabitants of the island who, whilst being confronted with the fate of the refugees nearly every day, attempt to keep their own lives going like they did before. By doing this Fire at Sea becomes a slow-burning but ever so moody portrait of an island in the frontline of this crisis. The two different aspects of the film (the native inhabitants of the island and the refugees on the boats, arriving at the island) do feel like two completely separate worlds that don't often clash with each other but it seems as if director Gianfranco Rosi tried to present the story as we would often get it in those days. We know how horrible it is and when it goes so deep into that, it really goes deep and dark, but whenever we spend our time with the locals, it appears like it does to most of Europe, a show far from our homes but always in the back of our minds.

    Substantially it is gripping in a subtle but effective way. Visually it is almost like a mix between Peter B. Hutton and Terrence Malick (though I advise taking that with a grain of salt). It feels free-flowing and hectic. Still and ever-moving. It is filled with life and the battle for life in quite a few different ways. It is ever so careful with this contemporary subject but in the end does give a great observation of a problem that's essentially as old as time itself. PRETTY BRILLIANT!!

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