Once again Gianfranco Rosi (The Boatman, 1993; Sacro GRA, 2013) investigates the reality of inhabitants of specific conflict zones. He has already gone to Varanasi, in India, Ciudad de Juarez, in Mexico, and to the outskirts of Rome. His camera searches for tales of extraordinary lives, from whores to botanics or sicarios (hitmen), as in the title of El Sicario, Room 164 (2010). This time he travelled to the island of Lampedusa, which has become a metaphor for freedom among African refugees.
In Italian, the title Fuocoammare plays with the words “ al mare” (at sea) and “amare” (to love) that unfortunately was lost in translation. It also refers to a South Italian song. It is clear, though, that the film is a love composition for the refugees. In fact, one of the doctors in charge of examining the corpses says he would never get used to seeing dead pregnant women or dead little children, despite the large number of bodies he scrutinises daily.
History is cyclic. What Fire at Sea exposes is a new type of slave ship. Those refugees come from Nigeria, Libya, Eritrea and Chad, some of them have crossed the Sahara and were antagonised by ISIS. They escape to the sea in a desperate cry for help, paying up to $1,000 for a very risky trip. It is not only the illegal aspect of the immigration that is risky, but the journey itself. Those who are at the bottom of the boat suffer dehydration and are often burnt by diesel.
Rosi has inherited the most famous trace of Italian culture, which is comedy, so the movie is not as dark as it could sound. He picks up Samuele, a twelve year-old boy, son of a fisherman, who plays the role of the documentarist, as he raises many urgent questions. The narrative flows in waves, always with humour and depth.
The director excels in cinematography, revealing the colours of night and submarine life almost like a Discovery Channel show. Both sea and night hide their beauty and creatures. One has to find a way to portray it accurately, revealing the deep truth. The darting editing by Jacopo Quadri, a regular collaborator, alternates between emotionally-laden and light-hearted takes.
A permanent state of emergency makes those framed individuals a subject too large to disregard. Samuele has a “lazy eye” and is obliged to use a blindfold. But Europe cannot turn a blind eye to African refugees anymore. Historical mistakes can be very expensive.
Watch Fire at Sea below: