Sometimes I’ll see a movie and that makes me shake my head and say, “Okay, yeah, I get it”. These sorts of movies are ones that I can understand at a formal, metaphorical, or thematic level, and yet even though I understand the choice that was made, I don’t enjoy what’s being presented. The “Okay, yeah, I get it” moment comes when the filmmaker continually returns to that formal or metaphorical material, and the sensation is like listening to a single sour note played repeatedly, interrupting the rest of a composition.
Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Fire at Sea is one of these films. Part of the movie is an unflinching look at the refugee crisis. The rest, the majority, is a lackadaisical portrait of life in Lampedusa, an Italian island fishing community. Toward the end of the film, the “Okay, yeah, I get it” became “Okay, yeah, I think I’m offended”.
[This review originally ran as part of Flixist’s coverage of the 54th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare)
Director: Gianfranco Rosi
Release Date: October 21, 2016 (limited)
Fire at Sea is two different movies. In one movie, dozens of malnourished refugees die from inhaling gasoline fumes from the ship’s engine. In the other film, a 12-year-old boy named Samuele struggles to steer a rowboat at the pier. One moment’s dire and heartbreaking, the other is played for laughs. There’s the coziness of Samuele’s town, and then there’s the squalor of a refugee ship. We watch Italian boys shoot cacti with slingshots and play war. We also watch a man from a war-torn country hyperventilate after being saved from a ship; he might be dying, he might have died. Everything about the town seems inconsequential, particularly two or three scenes involving a diver who adds little to the film save for some nice underwater photography.
While a mix of emotional highs and lows can work, here’s it’s just so mannered, calculated, and done with an off-putting emotional disinterest. Fire at Sea has so many obvious counterpoints to highlight thematic or symbolic material, it’s as if Rosi cared more about the metaphors than the actual human suffering. There’s minimal connection between the refugees and the people in town. None of the townspeople in the film work in the Italian coast guard, and only one person actually interacts with the refugees or talks about them meaningfully. For everyone else, the refugees don’t seem to exist. Toward the beginning of the film, an elderly woman cooks while listening to a radio. The DJ reads a report about drowned refugees. Those poor people, she says, and carries on.
There’s a doctor in town who treats refugees fished from the Mediterranean. He recounts this in troubled tones. The things he’s seen, the dire conditions, haunt his dreams. The doctor later appears in the film talking to Samuele about the boy’s lazy eye. (A metaphor for how many people choose not to see or cannot see the horrors that refugees face–okay, yeah, I get it). Samuele goes off, performing for the camera like a neurotic elderly man. In another movie, this may be charming. In Fire at Sea, the moment made me angry, and probably not in the way that Rosi intended. Yeah, okay, I get it, the contrast is meant to upset the audience’s comfortable lives and sensibilities. But isn’t all of this also obvious?
Fire at Sea is most effective when focusing on the refugees and the rescue teams. That’s when the film feels humane rather than an exercise in contrasting aesthetics. A man who’s been beaten on the boat literally cries blood. A woman breaks down before the camera, and despite being severely dehydrated, she first pours a cup of water over her head in relief. In a refugee processing center, a room of refugees prays as if in a Pentecostal revival, singing their story of survival. At night, refugees from different countries have a pick-up soccer game, as if some humanity, that dignity they risked their lives for, has been restored to them. But then back to Samuele, who slurps up spaghetti good and loud for laughs.
I understand Rosi’s intentions intellectually, and this collection of contrasts and disconnects does sound interesting in the abstract. But these are real people, and the last thing I want out of films or books is to be merely interesting. Being merely interesting is easy. The more I think about Fire at Sea, the more I’m offended by the choice to aestheticize human suffering for the sake of mere interestingness. Rosi may be well-intentioned, but Fire at Sea came across as unintentionally callous. That may have been the point. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.
It’s telling that the final scenes of Fire at Sea are all about Samuele rather than the refugees. Those poor people, Rosi’s film seems to say, and carries on.