Fire at Sea

Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, this Italian documentary*** by Gianfranco Rosi looks at the migration crisis as it effects the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.

Rosi’s techniques are masterfully old-fashioned. There are not talking heads – he simply shows a way of island life through a series of images and tableaux: a local radio DJ, a Mamma making sauce, a cheeky Italian kid suffering from anxiety but fashioning slingshots out of olive trees to shoot little birds.

Then there are the coast guards and the distress calls and a doctor conducting a pregnancy scan on the health of twins in a newly-arrived refugee’s womb.

Mug shots of arrivals mount up, faces with stories to tell – not that we hear them. There are tales of gunboats during WWII when it looked as if the sea was on fire. And then the real killer – a scene of a migrant boat piled high with people drifting and rescued by the coast guard who pull people out barely alive and haul them like prize tuna fish onto their rescue boats.

Some are not so lucky and the dead are fished from the steaming hot hull.

What to make of this? The contrast with island life isn’t really clear. I’ve seen Emanuele Crialese’s film  Terraferma, about Lampedusa’s neighbour Linosa, and how a fishing family have begun fishing migrants instead of fishes out of the sea. I thought that made a more compelling case, frankly.

Rosi’s film meanders to no real conclusion. We see too much of Mamma making the beds and kissing the Madonna (in reverse, we don’t get enough of her squid pasta recipe) and I couldn’t bring myself to care enough about this vaguely drawn family and their asthmatic kid. Maybe the doctor would have been a more interesting character to follow?

You can’t dismiss Rosi’s film – there’s too much that’s beautiful and hypnotic as well as much that is shocking and urgent, too – but despite all of this, there’s an emotional element that’s missing.

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