Festival Review: Fire At Sea (2016)

Fire At Sea

Half-documentary, half-fiction, Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare paints a portrait of life on Lampedusa with its fishing traditions and new waves of migrants.

La Terra Trema

by Mark Wilshin


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

There’s a scene in Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare that sees its camera hold perfectly still, while all around it everything moves – from the pontoon beneath to the boots and dinghies bobbing around on the swell while the sea rises and falls. It’s a metaphor for the island of Lampedusa – 70 kilometres off the African coast and 120 kilometres away from Sicily and mainland Europe – but also for the refugees from Syria and subsaharan Africa, 15,000 of whom, we’re told, have already died making the crossing, but now find themselves finally on terra firma, dehydrated, exhausted and burned by raw diesel. Framed through two stories – as a young teenage boy discovers he doesn’t quite fit into this ancestry of fishermen, more interested in hunting on land with his slingshot and disadvantaged for a life at sea by a queasy stomach and a lazy eye, as well as the plight of overfilled boats of migrants off Lampedusa’s shores gradually revealed – from emergency SOS calls and rescue to police processing and medical provision. More often than not posited as victims, the migrants are occasionally given a voice – with one Nigerian wailing his woes and joys in a communal song. But for the most part, there’s an unbreachable divide – our first glimpse of the refugees separated by a glass window as they huddle outside in the spray under foil blankets while the camera remains warm indoors. They’re victims – grieving for lost ones, overwhelmed by their ordeal or worse – corpses and occasionally objects – faceless shadows in a dazzling, shimmering gold. But still, Fuocoammare‘s documentary half is stronger than its more fictional counterpart, which put together somehow feel less than the sum of their parts. With no narrative arc to speak of, Fuocoammare feels like an update to the cinematic tales of life in Italy’s fishing ports from Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema to Emanuele Crialese’s Respiro – a slightly flabby portrait of an island now with more than just squid and anemones washing up on its shores.

Fuocoammare is now showing at the 66th Berlin Film Festival

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