To call “Fire at Sea,” the latest documentary from Italian director Gianfranco Rosi (“Sacro GRA”), a film about the European immigration crisis would be a misnomer. Yes, there are refugees from Northern Africa and yes, their heartbreaking and often deadly journeys are captured in the film, but Rosi’s documentary is more a series of direct cinema observations about Lampedusa, the Sicilian island at which many arrive, rather than a well-argued case for tolerance for immigrants.
For as much time as the refugees are afforded on screen — which in the grand scheme of things is not all that much — the individual with the most screen time is a young boy, Samuele, a native Lampedusa resident with a lazy eye who spends much of his time playing with his toy slingshot. Samuele never interacts with the refugees, whose trials and tribulations as they flee from their war-torn homelands are reserved off-screen or in oral history. But the refugees’ haunting presence abides. As Samuele climbs a tree to saw off a bit of wood, or places tiny explosives in a row of cacti with his friend, or gets his eyes examined, it’s impossible not to think of the refugees, only miles from this sheltered adolescent.
But that the refugees — at the center of a challenging geopolitical dilemma that requires smart filmmaking — are only one facet of this distracted film is exactly Rosi’s problem. His lack of focus and the loose ties between the various threads that guide the film through its two-hour run time deride the film from making any sort of meaningful statement on the subject. The fuocoammare ("fire at sea" in Italian) captured by his camera is multifaceted. The film depicts how the residents of Lampedusa, new and old, relate to the Mediterranean Sea. For the refugees, the sea was simultaneously a channel of escape and a major threat — many died from dehydration or overcrowding on makeshift rubber boats.
For the older residents of the island, memories of World War II battles on the sea looms like the dark clouds that muddle the sun’s rays. For others, including a radio DJ intermittently visited, “Fire at Sea” refers to an old song, and to others, the inclement weather that prevents the fishing industry, the primary industry of the island, from succeeding. A general sense of terror on boats plagues Samuele, our young protagonist, as he gets seasick on one occasion and loses control of a rowboat on another.
But the refugee crisis is just one part of many. We never see refugees on their way to Europe or how citizens of the island treat them. We see their rescue, their “registration” and documentation processes orchestrated by Italian officials. We see a meeting between a pregnant refugee and a doctor. We see a makeshift soccer competition, in which refugees from each country band together to compete in a miniature world cup. And we see a heart-wrenching recanting of one group’s journey, from Nigeria to the Sahara to Libya and finally to Lampedusa.
When Rosi fixes his camera on the refugees, “Fire at Sea” feels like the most relevant and powerful documentary in ages. Nearly every image of the refugees is visually arresting. Italian authorities, at first, treat the refugees like diseased specimens, with gloves and facemasks. The refugees are cloaked in gold foil, which shimmers in the nighttime light like a gown at a bourgeoisie gala. When he focuses on the other residents, which happens all too often, the film feels overly long and, ultimately, like a dud.
Still, Rosi, like his Italian contemporaries (see: Paolo Sorrentino (“Youth”) and Luca Guadagnino (“A Bigger Splash”)), has nailed down a breathtaking visual style. His filmmaking is intrepid, following divers underwater or tracing the nighttime searchlights on the open sea. If the context weren’t so devastating, Rosi’s images would be beyond enchanting.