Fire at Sea ★★★★½

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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