“Fire At Sea” (Italy)
Directed by Gianfranco Rosi
Not quite sure how to review this Oscar nominated documentary, or if it even should be. It is important that people see it, at least many parts of it. And I fear if I point out my misgivings of it, I will be accused of not appreciating the gravity of its message. I assure you, I do. So, here goes…
This is a fly-on-the-wall documentary, in which the fly allows us to visit the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, both on the island and off the coast. It is here that many of the boats, filled with sick, dehydrated, dying or dead immigrants fleeing war-torn nations in Africa, end up. The opening title cards reveal that last year alone over 400,000 immigrants came through the island…5,000 of which had died by the time they reached the shores. The scenes of the hardships they endure, the miraculous sacrifice and risks made by the service men and women of the Italian Coast Guard, and the time spent with the head physician responsible for not only taking care of the island’s Italian population, but overseeing the health (and autopsies) of those recovered or rescued, is mesmerizing…frustrating, infuriating, human and humane.
However, these moments of stark reality are juxtaposed against another reality…the slow and quiet life of a family of Sicilians who play no part in the immigrant story. They merely go through their day to day existence – world’s away, and yet just a few miles from the heartbreaking action. And while this contrast is the point, it’s during these moments that the film loses its energy. Alas, the family Rosi has decided to focus his lens on is just not compelling enough. The result is two separate, and not very compatible, documentaries…at least in the watching. And even as I wished that the family WAS the documentary subject, so we would never HAVE to document the other, I found myself relieved to get back to it as an audience member…something to hang on to…to rage against…something to FEEL something about.
And since it is a fly on the wall film, with exceptional camera work and photography, there are no talking heads or interviews, with one exception…the doctor in question, Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who, with no expectation of accolades, simply communicates that if one is human, than it is impossible NOT to act…to do what one can. If you’re an American, this line alone will bring tears to your eyes due to the obvious comparison to our prevailing political attitudes. But, truly, this is not your typical documentary. Chronology is never the focus, nor is a a storied through-line. In this way I found myself comparing it to one of the more beautiful, if frustrating, doc experiences of the last twenty years, 2012’s “Leviathan” (no, not the Russian feature).
I don’t know, you might find “Fire At Sea” a chore to complete…you might think I’m an asshole for even suggesting that. Regardless, it is a work of extreme importance and I suggest you sit all the way through it.
Written on 2/14/2017