Fire at Sea

 

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This much lauded documentary about the tragic plight of migrants is more of an oddity than you might suppose.

  

Fire at Sea

 

I have the impression that in the sphere of arthouse cinema critics love to find new favourites and then to promote these directors as exceptional talents. Some who are spotlighted in this way last the course but others fade away. The latest ‘in’ name appears to be that of the Italian documentarist Gianfranco Rosi whose work was ignored here until his 2013 movie Sacro GRA won the Golden Lion at Venice. Now we have his latest piece fresh from its triumph at this year’s Berlin Film Festival where it won the Golden Bear.

 

I had failed to understand the acclaim for Sacro GRA which, viewing the ring road of that name round Rome and observing people there, struck me as shapeless and largely without meaning (like this new work it was presented without any commentary or voice over). Nevertheless I expected to be impressed by Fire at Sea since it has been hailed as an involving portrayal of the plight of immigrants coming to grief in the Straits of Sicily and being brought ashore by their rescuers in Lampedusa. And, indeed, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that on that subject the film contains compelling footage: in the presence of gospel singers, a Nigerian vividly describes his experiences on the journey, a doctor movingly acknowledges the impact of what he has seen and  continues to see and Rosi (who photographs his own films) provides us with some wonderfully expressive faces.

 

All that is fine, but quite as much time, if not  more, is spent illustrating the life of a local boy named Samuele. At the outset he shoots at birds with a catapult and when we leave him he is firing an imaginary shotgun. Thus there’s little sense of development and, while his life and that of his family engaged in fishing is indicative of the normal existence that continues alongside the horrendous realities experienced by the migrants, the detailed footage hardly justifies its place. It weakens the film in other ways too: at 114 minutes the piece comes to feel overextended, several scenes featuring Samuele and involving dialogue with a friend or with family members appear set up through being shot like a fiction film and in any case the intercutting between this material and the footage dealing with the migrants makes once again for a feeling of shapelessness.

 

Certain scenes are really good - memorable one would say - but as a whole Fire at Sea doesn't seem to me to merit the high praise that it is getting. One detail is perhaps revealing: everyone will agree that the tragedy of the refugees is the core aspect yet in choosing his title Rosi comes up with one that twice rates a mention in the film but hardly significantly. Talk of the past brings up the phrase in a wartime context and Fire at Sea is also the title of a record played by the local DJ, but that's all.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring Inhabitants of Lampedusa and migrants.

 

Dir Gianfranco Rosi, Pro Donatella Palermo, Gianfranco Rosi, Serge Lalou and Camille Laemlé, Story (from an idea by Carla Cattani) Gianfranco Rosi, Ph Gianfranco Rosi, Ed Jacopo Quadri.

 
A 21uno Film, Stemal Entertainment production/Istituto Luce Cinecittà/Rai Cinema/Les Films d’Ici/Arte France Cinéma-Curzon Film World.
114 mins. Italy/France. 2016. Rel: 10 June 2016. Cert. 12A
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