Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare), directed by Gianfranco Rosi, is the winner of this year’s Golden Bear, the highest award of the Berlin International Film Festival. It will be screened publicly at the 54th New York Film Festival this year. The Italian film is a documentary of the unimaginable horror that refugees endure attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, filmed on the small island of Lampedusa between Sicily and Tunisia.
Rosi juxtaposes scenes of brutal suffering with the life of Samuele, a preteen boy living on the island. Samuele’s normal life is seemingly untouched by the migrant crisis. His biggest concerns are constructing slingshots out of tree branches. His biggest problem is a lazy eye. These moments are a welcome reprieve from the naked misery in the other sections of the movie. But they may be too frequent.
Fire at Sea has no narration. It presents the story of migrants and their rescuers with a plain camera eye. Hundreds of people cram onto tiny unseaworthy ships, packed so tightly they cannot sit. Rescuers with faces covered in medical masks are forced to stack the sick or dehydrated like logs onto their lifeboats. The poor people are piled on top of each other as they cling to breath. Dozens of the more unlucky lie dead in the hold, waiting to be sealed into black bags.
The brutality of the Migrant Crisis is shown nakedly in this movie. It is hard to come away from Fire at Sea without being moved by their plight.
Style Before Subject Matter
But Fire at Sea actually only spends half or less of its running time with the masses of unfortunate people. At least as much time is given again to Samuele and his stable life, who has no real connection to the crisis. An Italian doctor appears describing how he has to mutilate dead bodies to help identify them. But then scenes later, the doctor is listening to Samuele breathe in a typical First World exam. He is the only bridge between the two halves of the movie.
Gianfranco Rosi’s film is not a critique of either the migrants or the Europeans. What we see of the Africans and Syrians are very average-looking people. They wear American sports jerseys, they try to call loved ones on payphones. The Italians are all doing their best, professionally sorting those they have saved. This movie is not just going to tell you what to think or what to do.
But still, as much as I admire the film, I must admit: Fire at Sea is a very confusing movie.
Samuele’s life is a clear message about how easy it is to ignore the misery of the world. These people starve and Samuele loudly slurps squid pasta at dinner. The point Rosi is making is clear. However he spends so much time on the contrast that Fire at Sea is more the story of an Italian boy than the migrants, none of which are even given names. Since Samuele never interacts with the refugees, he might as well not even be in this movie. I came to this movie to see the refugee’s story, which is only partially told here.