Film Review | Fire at Sea

Gianfranco Rosi’s award-winning, dispassionate exploration of the migrant crisis is set to be the highlight of the upcoming Valletta Film Festival

Teodor Reljic
23 May 2016, 8:30am
Pier pressure: Young Samuele is the jittery protagonist in Gianfraco Rosi’s sensitive and award-winning documentary
Pier pressure: Young Samuele is the jittery protagonist in Gianfraco Rosi’s sensitive and award-winning documentary

Arguably the shining star of this year’s edition of the Valletta Film Festival, Gianfranco Rosi’s award-winning, dispassionate exploration of the migrant crisis and how it affects the island of Lampedusa is a beautiful but sobering experience whose concentrated aesthetic precision is matched by its pursuit of unruffled truth.

Emerging after months of on-site immersion, Fuocoammare (‘Fire at Sea’) is a documentary that feels like a feature film but that comes with none of the showy gimmicks that such a genre hybrid might imply. Instead, what we get is a presentation of characters, places and situations which Rosi has an intimate awareness and knowledge of, and which he judiciously edits into his film to paint a rich, if ambiguous, picture of a society in crisis.

Our way into his world is through the eyes of 12-year-old boy Samuele – son of a fisherman and more interested in firing slingshots at unsuspecting cactus plants than he is in concentrating on his schoolwork. Both a source of nervy humanity and comic relief for Rosi’s film, Samuele pops in and out of the languid but troubling narrative, which juxtaposes his day-to-day life with the problems surrounding irregular migration to his native Lampedusa.

Apart from a few introductory frames of starkly factual captions – detailing Lampedusa’s recent history with boat migration – Rosi’s documentary has no overbearing voice narrating, or even nudging, the documentary’s mission statement forward to the audience.

The result is that the presented events come across as a drawn out and more beautifully shot version of Euronews’s ‘No Comment’ segment. I don’t mean this in a disparaging sense at all: if anything, the technique is a masterful way of approaching cinema verite, and wedded to Rosi’s sumptuous photography – the director also took care of cinematographic duties – it makes for a bewitching experience.

But thankfully, the focus on the island’s natural beauty and the impeccably lit interiors – both a home and small radio studio – isn’t there to prettify and distract. Rosi stakes his claim as a filmmaker of aesthetic conviction only to clarify his thematic exploration to its fullest.

Apart from the already challenging hybrid format Rosi operates in – basically a documentary but with an fiction film’s intimate character focus – his approach won’t satisfy those eager for moments of narrative closure or satisfying catharsis that we expect from fiction films.

And neither does it have the – however limited – comforts of the traditional documentary’s rationalising voice: there is no journalistic line of inquiry here that’s either satisfied or crushed in the end. Instead, things taper on, and the film leaves the floor to us to puzzle out and discuss what the future might hold: for Lampedusa in particular, and for the migrant crisis in general.

But there are striking moments that are nothing short of cinematic poetry. The quiet approach that favours long takes and creates stillness creates some amazing visual opportunities, like a magic-hour shot of one of the migrant boats opening its hatch that would not be out of place in a Terrence Malick feature.

But Rosi remains committed to humanity above all, and I strongly believe that the film’s trademark sequence is the one in which a group of assembled migrants sing their plight away while stuck on a boat.

It’s not even remotely hyperbolic to describe the scene as a Greek chorus. We see and hear them concentrating in their pain, secure in the knowledge that this is their only viable conduit for it.

Fire at Sea will be screened on June 8 at Fort St Elmo, Valletta at 21:00, as part of the Valletta Film Festival. For more information and a full programme, log on to:

Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...