TIFF Review: ‘Fire at Sea’

TIFF 2016

5 mins read

Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare)
(Italy/France, 108 min.)
Dir. Gianfranco Rosi
Programme: Masters (Canadian Premiere)


Gianfranco Rosi has the rare distinction of topping major film festivals back to back after his Sacro GRA scooped the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Film Festival and his new doc Fire at Sea nabbed the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale. The coup is especially rare for documentary, since most major film festivals (cough, cough, Cannes) generally neglect the art of non-fiction filmmaking. Rosi’s Fire at Sea is a bold choice for a jury to select as the best film of the festival since it’s not a film that knocks one over immediately. It needs time to envelope viewers and consume them like the sea. Drift cautiously with Fire at Sea, though, and one will appreciate the depth of Rosi’s waters.

Fire at Sea examines the small island of Lampedusa that sits a few miles south of Sicily. The island might not seem important to tourists and even many native Italians, but it’s a life preserver for thousands of refugees who make the long voyage north from Africa. The film captures the scope and gravity of the contemporary global migration crisis as Rosi observes the lives of Italians who dwell on Lampedusa and those of refugees who arrive there.

Rosi doesn’t bring a clear argument to his new doc, but that’s not necessarily a negative. This meditative doc offers as little exposition, set-up, information, and finger pointing as possible. Fire at Sea instead offers languid images of the sea that editor Jacopo Quadri cuts with a methodically relaxed rhythm. Rosi invites the audiences to consider rich images and scenes that feature Samuele, a nine-year-old Lampedusan boy, his father and grandmother; the lone doctor on the island; a DJ with a soothing voice; the harbour patrolmen and the countless migrants who risk everything by traversing the rocky waters.

The images of Fire at Sea are beautiful and provocative. The film lets one appreciate the relaxed, almost provincial way of life on Lampedusa as Samuele enjoys the boisterous days of summer, launching firecrackers into cacti and rowing aimlessly in the harbour. Samuele later visits Dr. Bartolo, though, who works to heal the young boy’s lazy eye. As Dr. Bartolo corrects Samuele’s vision, so, too, does Rosi change our focus. Fire at Sea brings in migrants by the boatful as Rosi introduces the countless faces that survive the long journey from Africa.

Impressive access from Italian authorities brings the audience right into the lifeboats as dehydrated and sun-scorched survivors are rescued. Images of survivors, who were on the brink of death, encourage viewers to see the humans behind the story. Rather than sensational images that make the evening news, Fire at Sea gives audiences the action between the cuts: the legal processes employed by the administration, the efforts by doctors at decontamination, the stories of loss and survival by some refugees, and the silent testimony of survivors too shocked to speak in pithy soundbites. Rosi’s compositions are as artful as they are respectful. Fire at Sea presents shots of survivors crying tears of blood or mourning their beloved ones who failed to complete the trip. Especially unsettling are the moments in which Rosi takes the camera into the belly of the beast and show the piles of bodies strewn about the lowest deck of the boat where little air and heavy heat make the voyage fatal for far too many passengers.

Fire at Sea is a timely and compelling study of migration as Canada encounters its own wave of refugees from countries like Syria and Canadians debate the cost of initiating so many new citizens. The doc looks not at the tax dollars spent or the number of bodies admitted to Italy. It simply immerses the viewer in the complexity of a situation that affords no easy answers. What right does anyone have to debate the merits of survival when far too many lives are lost at sea?

Fire at Sea screens:
-Friday, Sept. 9 at 4:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox
-Saturday, Sept. 10 at 12:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

TIFF runs Sept. 8 – 18. Please visit tiff.net for more information.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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