It is easy to sink into the quiet waters of Gianfranco Rosi’s newest documentary, which brought him his second top honor from a major festival (“Sacro GRA” won Venice 2013) when it picked up the Golden Bear at the 2016 Berlinale this weekend. It’s a beautifully shot, meditative and poignant piece of work that clearly represents the fruits of a long period of intimate contact with its subjects, and a kind of fascinated love for the rhythms of traditional Italian islander life that goes beyond the anthropological and becomes almost spiritual in nature. It is creatively presented in a manner that stretches, but does not snap the elastic relation of documentary to reality. It is compassionate despite its austerity. It is a sort of star vehicle for its central character, the wonderful 12-year-old Samuele. What it is not, however, is a documentary about the European migrant crisis.
This is an issue, because that’s how this arthouse film, more an auteurist artistic expression than a traditional, informational documentary, is being described almost everywhere. But while there are segments dealing directly with the crisis, including viscerally upsetting images of bodies dead and dying being dragged off catastrophically overloaded boats, and recordings of terrified voices begging for help and sending up their last prayers to God via radio, they are, despite their intensity, not the focus of the film. Mostly the crisis is described in almost abstract terms — a stream of people wrapped like candy in tinfoil blankets that twinkle in the dark, radio reports of deaths and drownings being gently tutted over by a woman chopping tomatoes in her kitchen; a rough-and-tumble impromptu football match in the migrant compound between “Eritrea” and “Syria.”
The film’s real focus is not on the new arrivals, but the longtime inhabitants of Italy’s southernmost island. Lampedusa, 20 square kilometers of land that lies 112 km off the Tunisian coast, has just 6,000 inhabitants, almost all of which are involved in the fishing industry. Rosi shapes the film around a small group: the dedicated doctor who provides the only real point of contact between the migrants and the permanent residents; the radio DJ who appears to receive more or less daily requests from Aunt Maria for creaky-sounding traditional folk songs; and the small family unit over which she presides, especially the child of that family, the irrepressible Samuele.
An engaging mixture of old man and young boy — he takes great pride in his slingshots, but on a hilarious visit to the doctor comes across more like a Woody Allen proxy than a rambunctious 12-year-old — Samuele is an electrifyingly natural presence. We spend a lot of time with him (and we wouldn’t want to lose a moment of it) and whatever he’s doing, wandering through the scrubby growth at night trying to find a songbird, throwing up at sea, trying to learn how to row (it’s utterly endearing how lacking Samuele is in the basic skills of a fisherman), visiting the optician for his lazy eye or laboriously working through his English homework, he is an extraordinary subject. And he also has the most transcendently un-self-conscious spaghetti-eating scene since “Blue is the Warmest Color.”
But in contrast to this small group of islanders who are individual people living continuous full lives only occasionally troubled by the disaster unfolding around them, the immigrants are largely undifferentiated. And when we do focus on one man or one woman for a spell, as during a mesmerizing moment when one of them bursts into a kind of spoken-word-meets-folk-ballad-meets-Homeric-epic-poem version of the story of his journey, instantly memorializing it like it’s a tale that has already passed into collective memory, it is only ever a one-off — we never see them again. When the depersonalizing rhetoric around the crisis is part of the problem (British PM David Cameron using terms like “swarm,” for example) it feels a little like an opportunity missed that Rosi, with his keen eye for capturing a whole personality in a lady making a bed or a child “mending” a cactus he’s been using as target practice, does not train it more fully on one or two of the migrants.
Of course, that is not the film he wanted to make, and “Fire at Sea” is testament to Rosi’s singular approach. But as beguiled as I was, I also found it, or perhaps my own response, slightly questionable: is it even ethical to use such a raw and ongoing disaster as context for a different story? Is Rosi creating interest in the underreported migrant crisis, or borrowing it? And if ultimately, as seems to be the case, we are meant to notice the bifurcated structure in which the traditional rhythms of life on Lampedusa go on all but untouched by the humanitarian calamity happening a slingshot’s reach away, wouldn’t the film benefit from a little more balance between those two parallel lines? And what is that insight worth — to us, to them?
Not all documentaries must be prompts to activism, of course. But the almost lyrical, background-chorus way the undifferentiated migrant masses are portrayed here, coming in ceaseless waves like the sea that crashes against the coast, packed into holding areas segregated from the island population, lined up for processing and assigned numbers like prisoners — it all combines to locate our point of view entirely outside of them as people. Instead we’re encouraged to parse the actions and attitudes of one little boy for symbolism: are Samuele’s complaints of breathlessness and allergies actually neurotic manifestations of stress (a word he stumbles over in an English lesson) due to a generalized sense of tragedy in the air? Is his childish habit of firing an imaginary machine gun into the air some expression of unconscious antagonism toward the low-level threat the migrants pose to his tranquil way of life? Possibly, but frankly drawing this sort of conclusion feels like reaching, and it’s not a little disturbing when the people whom these symbols may be representing are dying horribly, and non-symbolically, a few kilometers away.
“Fire at Sea” is two films, either one of which is astonishing, powerful and human. But the difference in scale and perspective they are accorded means that taken together they present a one-sided and oddly passive conversation, one that does not ask us to step too far out of the place where our innate biases, as largely middle-class Western audiences, most likely lie anyway. Despite all the craft and care it seems just slightly deflating that “Fire at Sea” can elicit a relatively complacent reaction when it is such a thoughtful, deeply-felt and exquisitely observed film, set right in the eye of a raging storm. [B/B+]