A tiny island no more than eight square miles in size, Lampedusa has long been a Mediterranean toehold for people on the move, from ancient Greek and Roman sailors until now, as African migrants take advantage of its position roughly halfway between Libya and Sicily to make their first contact with European soil. These refugees now number more than 150,000 a year, crossing illegally in crowded boats — a phenomenon seen often enough on European news, usually when things go tragically amiss. But what of those who call this isolated location home? In “Fire at Sea,” docu helmer Gianfranco Rosi turns his eye on the locals, most notably a 12-year-old boy named Samuele, whose lives have been transformed both directly and indirectly by a migrant problem far too large for the minuscule community to handle, addressing the crisis in humanist terms via a delicate, decidedly noncommercial cine-poem.
Once again immersing himself in a community on the margins, as he previously did in his micro-sociological portraits “Sacro GRA” (along Rome’s ring road) and “Below Sea Level” (set in a withering town deep in the California desert), Rosi has long been drawn to quiet lives, but has never been quite so successful in conveying the soulful qualities he sees in them to his audience — until now, using the oblique approach of Lampedusa’s residents to spotlight this growing international crisis, while using his young protagonist’s obliviousness to reflect and indict our own. Where Rosi’s previous work has been accused of offering scattershot portraits of disparate characters, this one feels more focused in its overall edit, while open enough to encourage personal reactions.
The director works almost entirely alone, handling sound and camera duties himself, this time armed with a versatile Arriflex Amira. This approach presumably gives him the financial freedom to make the sort of intimate films that seldom screen beyond the festival circuit. Because it relates more closely to current events, “Fire at Sea” could enjoy slightly wider exposure, though Rosi’s work remains better suited to arthouse screens than, say, the evening news.
That, of course, is precisely Rosi’s point and explains why the director (who had originally planned to make a 10-minute short) felt it necessary to spend roughly a year on Lampedusa, where TV crews swoop in — and just as hastily exit — whenever enough people drown. Rosi’s goal is to understand the long-term impact of this ongoing problem on the locals, which might make the film seem deceptively small as he singles out just a few soft-spoken island natives to include — although he does film several at-sea search and rescue operations from aboard Italian naval vessels as well, following the otherwise anonymous survivors through processing to a Sicilian detention facility.
Choosing young Samuele Puccilo as the audience’s primary point of identification, Rosi contrasts what might pass for an ordinary childhood — building a slingshot, climbing on rocks, playing with firecrackers — with the massive crisis unfolding around him. Though the men in Samuele’s family have nearly all been fishermen, the poor boy can barely handle himself on water, throwing up when his father takes him out on his boat. Just imagine how the hundreds of migrants must feel, smuggled aboard cramped and unsafe vessels, their lungs full and skin burned by diesel fumes!
Except, Samuele can’t possibly imagine what these seasick, critically dehydrated souls must suffer, and though others (like his grandmother) hear such news practically every day on the radio, the situation still feels remote. Of the locals, only community doctor Pietro Bartolo, who’s obliged to attend every landing and identify those in greatest need of urgent care, seems to realize the full scale of the tragedy. “It’s the duty of every human being to help these people,” Dr. Bartolo tells Rosi at one point, sharing personal photos of some of the more ghastly cases he has witnessed, including one ship with more passengers (890) than the island’s modest immigration center could possibly accommodate.
“Fire at Sea” seems to share Bartolo’s opinion that the recent spike in illegal immigration is not a problem limited to just the Lampedusa people, but one that affects Europe (and the world) at large. After all, given the island’s near-total lack of infrastructure to handle these refugees, they pass swiftly from Lampedusa to Sicily, Italy and ultimately Europe, leaving almost no visible impact on the locals.
The effect is subtler than that, and one that Rosi himself senses, even if the cameras can’t necessarily record it, relying more on editor Jacopo Quadri’s almost subliminal structural choices: It’s there in Dr. Bartolo’s offices, where he gives an immigrant mother her first view of her twins via sonogram, but can’t escape memories of others who died giving birth aboard the boats. It might also explain the anxiety young Samuele claims to be experiencing in a scene that, at the very least, demonstrates how minor the locals’ ailments seem by comparison.
How bizarre it is to watch Samuele and his best friend destroy cactus plants or fire imaginary canons at passing navy ships when there is so much real violence forcing outsiders into the water around his home. In the decades to come, will he too fish these waters, in which so many have drowned? Or will he perhaps join the rescue efforts? Samuele didn’t ask to be born on Lampedusa any more than the countless nameless migrants did to experience the conditions they are fleeing. These and a thousand thoughts like them swim to the surface in a film that’s loosely structured enough to invite free-association.
Rosi doesn’t lecture us with context, but attempts to provide it in a visual, largely unspoken way, letting the horror (for what else can you call the images of so many corpses left below the deck of an intercepted ship?) accumulate little by little. Slow to build and frequently discursive, with lazy asides dedicated to those who pass their days harvesting oysters or DJing outdated love songs over the local airways, the movie feels woefully incomplete in dealing with its own subject, but leaves a haunting impression of how this old-fashioned way of life collides with pressing concerns a continent away.