Fire at Sea
Directed by Gianfranco Rosi
Released October 21, 2016
The fate of immigrants and refugees is an especially poignant topic these days considering the recent moves by the new administration in the United States to limit entry based on country of origin and other factors which have sparked protests and much turmoil. A spotlight on the difficulty encountered by those coming from Muslim-majority countries to try to find new homes on a Sicilian island should be just as intriguing. This contemplative look at Lampedusa during the European migrant crisis tackles an enticing topic but its style leaves something to be desired.
“Fire at Sea,” an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary that will contend for the award next weekend, was also selected by Italy as its submission for Best Foreign Film, though it didn’t make the cut. This quiet, somber nonfiction film splits its time between showcasing life on Lampedusa, which proceeds at a slow pace and involves little fanfare, and radio conversations with passing ships ill-prepared for their treacherous journeys through the sea from nearby countries such as Libya and Tunisia. They are heard more than they are seen, but both are deeply affecting and heart-wrenching since few survive this arduous trip to one last hope for salvation.
There are those for whom “Fire at Sea” will be a potent, moving juxtaposition of two very different things - one a stable if unexciting normalcy on a small island and the other a harrowing and entirely unglamorous voyage towards a better life. The problem is that the film offers little insight of its own, allowing its captured events and interactions to do the talking and leaving the viewer to conclude what he or she might about the dynamic disparity between these two existences.
“Fire at Sea” is not a documentary that posits any particular argument or seeks to resolve any crisis or issue other than to showcase it for the world (appropriate, in the case of its Oscars attention) to see. Instead, it puts forth what established Italian documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi has collected as the most literal type of documenting, assembling it together to provide two stories diverging from the same starting point. There is value to it, but it hardly compares to a number of other stronger nonfiction films this year that feel considerably more vital due to the energy and powerful nature of the cases they make.