Fire at Sea ★★★


Fire at Sea is a difficult film to evaluate, since one need watch it for a mere five minutes to get an immediate sense of Rosi's mastery of the medium. (Although he has only shown up on the radar of most North American cinephiles rather recently - either with this film or his previous effort, the Golden Lion winner Sacro GRA - he produced his first feature documentary Boatman back in 1993.) Each and every shot in Fire at Sea is meticulously composed for maximum impact, great care taken with respect to foreground / background relationships, color and tone, shape and movement. Like a softer Ulrich Seidl, Rosi is actively molding reality, not only to press it into the service of a particular rhetoric but also to make that rhetorical form clean and visible, with a minimum of manipulation or deceit.

In the case of Fire at Sea, is that it's not the film form that is flawed. It's the argumentation itself. Easily one of the most poetic and at the same time most harrowing among the recent spate of documentaries and news programs about the international refugee crisis, Fire at Sea, depending on your point of view, either permits itself too many liberties, or not enough. This is a film of comparison, using a physical space, the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, to sort out human events. By doing so, Rosi generates a kind of dialectical relationship not unlike the one Godard found in Palestine: "here and elsewhere," except that the "elsewhere" has now come "here" as well, resulting in stresses in the social fabric of "here."

Rosi brings us close, painfully so, to the anguish of refugees who have risked everything (and in many cases lost) to sail from North Africa in search of a better life. At the same time, Fire at Sea aims to remind us that Lampedusa is more than just a crisis point that most of us learned about from the evening news. So the film goes back and forth from, on the one hand, the rescue, medical help, and processing of the refugees, and on the other, the daily routines of Samuele, a bright young local boy who wanders the island, shoots birds with a homemade slingshot, and is a decent enough student in school.

There is not concrete relation between Samuele and the rescue workers, although at one point Samuele tries to help out with the relief effort and doesn't seem to get very far. No, Samuele is like our control group, there to indicate what the situation in Lampedusa is doing to the locals there. As we see, his health is deteriorating (lazy eye, panic attacks) and he is distracted from his schoolwork.

The net result, though, is that by setting up this essential comparison, Fire at Sea, whether intentionally or not, sets up a false equivalency. (Yes, Samuele has to wear strange corrective glasses. Still, he didn't travel in a ramshackle boat for hundreds of miles with a dead sibling's corpse in tow.) Rosi does not individuate the refugees, which makes the individuation of Samuele and his troubles seem a bit skewed in favor of the Western subject.

This is clearly not Rosi's intent, or his position. However, the structure of Fire at Sea tells a somewhat different story. Because if the people who live on Lampedusa (particularly the children) have a fundamental right to having their stories heard, then what about the refugees, who all have lives of their own? It's possible, I suppose, that this conundrum is a trap that Rosi sprang for the unwitting liberal viewer, who is secretly used to thinking that "the refugees" are a single corporal body, arriving and demanding things as one overwhelming force. In fact, when Rosi cedes half his film to them, and half to a single Italian boy, the lopsided nature of our ideology - Who gets to come here and live like a human being? - becomes painfully apparent.