There are two distinct movies in Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, and you could say that somewhere in between them lies the real one. The director, an Italian documentarian whose observational films demonstrate a formal rigor that often brings them close to experimental cinema and installation work, has trained his lens on Lampedusa, a sleepy island south of Sicily, perched about 70 kilometers from the African coast. Its geographical position has for years made Lampedusa the landing place for refugees and migrants fleeing the chaos in Libya, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and elsewhere. “Landing” might not be the precise word: All too often, these men, women and children are rescued or recovered from the waters of the Mediterranean after their leaky, overcrowded boats sink. Even when the boats make it, many of the people don’t.
But seen through Rosi’s gentle, patient eyes, Lampedusa itself is a quaint little world where the easy pace of daily life has not been entirely disrupted. We see Samuele, a 12-year-old local boy, as he carves out slingshots and uses prickly pear pads for target practice. Coming from a family of fishermen and sailors, he wrestles with his seasickness and learns to row a boat (badly). There’s a timelessness to all this: You imagine that, 30 or 40 years ago, this world wasn’t that much different. At a reef, a diver goes looking for sea urchins. The local radio DJ takes requests, often for old standbys. What little connection these people have to the desperate refugees washing up on their shores is encapsulated in a quick utterance by an aging housewife. While cooking, she hears that 60 dead bodies have been recovered from a recent wreck at sea. She mutters, quickly, “Oh, poor souls” without even lifting her head. For her, the horror is already background noise.
That calm, quotidian pastoral is one movie. But all throughout Fire at Sea, Rosi cuts to the other movie, the one that follows those souls fished out of Lampedusa’s coastal waters and the workers tasked with finding and bringing them ashore. In contrast to the organic, timeless milieu of Lampedusa itself, this is a world of heavy machinery: big radars and helicopters and naval vessels and giant spotlights scouring the waves. Half-dying bodies are pulled off boats; later, after the living have been accounted for, men in hazmat suits go in and collect the piles of dead. Covered in green-hued space blankets to keep them warm, the arriving refugees strike a sharp contrast to the cozy, organic world of Samuele and his family.
About halfway through, Rosi lets Dr. Pietro Bartolo, the island’s lone doctor, sit at a computer flipping through the images on his hard drive, recalling the things that he’s seen. In a mournful, matter-of-fact cadence that soon gives way to tears, Bartolo describes the kinds of injuries and illnesses he’s dealt with, talking about dead babies birthed at sea and bodies half-burnt by the deadly mixture of seawater and gasoline. His colleagues, he tells us, assume he’s used to it — but you never get used to things like that. Bartolo serves as a kind of human bridge between the two worlds, the two movies. Later, we see him doing a routine examination of Samuele, the prior nightmare now briefly replaced by the mundane reality of an anxious young boy’s doctor visit.
Some will criticize Fire at Sea for its pointed disconnect, for the fact that the refugees remain decidedly other throughout the film. Perhaps the way to counter that would have been to find a child among the refugees and follow his or her experiences, as a counterweight to Samuele’s story. But that, I suspect, would miss the larger idea. There is nothing natural or commonplace about what these people are going through. The breach between these two worlds is part of Rosi’s formal and moral gambit. So he lets us into the refugees’ lives slowly. At first, we hear them as voices over the radio, pleading to be saved. Later, they arrive under cover of night — shadowy, indistinct figures.
But we start to see them. Eventually, we’re faced with their close-ups as they’re photographed by authorities for documentation. And we begin to get snapshots of their experiences. Half-singing, half-wailing, a man recounts how he and his companions fled the chaos of Nigeria only to find themselves faced with ISIS in Libya. “The mountains could not hide us, the people could not hide us, so we went to the sea,” he cries, to the backing howls of those around him. Another man cries tears of literal blood. How do you reconcile trauma like this with the easy rhythms of ordinary life? You don’t, Rosi’s film tells us, and to do so would be obscene.