Less a documentary than it is a 74-minute infomercial trying to sell European politicians on their own humanity, Vanessa Redgrave’s “Sea Sorrow” neither qualifies as art nor aspires to be considered as such — it’s far too urgent for interpretation. Funded by and featuring the legendary actress (newly minted as a director just a few months after her 80th birthday), this glorified PSA is essentially the negative image of Gianfraco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea.” Redgrave’s film is as direct as Rosi’s film is impressionistic, her plea as haphazard as his is elegant. Of course, the world is wide enough to support both approaches, and the situation is dire enough to demand them.
While much of “Sea Sorrow” speaks to its audience in the abstract language of history and statistics, Redgrave is wise to ground this portrait on a personal level. The film begins with a devastating series of interviews in which young immigrants stare into the camera and recount the story of how they came to live in Italy.
A 22-year-old Afghani named Hamidi discusses in clinical detail how his mother and father were executed before his eyes. A kid named Diallo reflects on his odyssey from Guinea, and how more than a dozen people plummeted to their deaths during one particularly treacherous part of the trek. Redgrave frames a third subject in an extreme close-up from the nose up, and the unnerving composition calls attention to the smiles of the other boys; how, even while remembering the unimaginable horrors that had been visited upon them, they still default to a smile, keenly aware of how lucky they are in the grand scheme of things. There but for the grace of God go I…
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That element of perspective is central to Redgrave’s message from the start, and only grows increasingly more so as she begins to contextualize this current exodus in the greater history of humanitarian crises. The root of the issue, she argues in no uncertain terms, can be traced back to how easy it is for someone to lose sight of their good fortune, to how even the children or grandchildren of refugees so often lack the empathy required to open their borders and provide a home for those in need. The film’s title, taken from one of Prospero’s monologues in “The Tempest” (and performed here by Ralph Fiennes), reminds us that even the Duke of Milan could be reduced to a man who survived certain death by floating on the “rotten carcass” of a boat.
The Holocaust is an inevitably useful reference point. When she’s not appearing in front of a (terribly amateurish) green screen and recounting her own childhood during the early days of World War II, Redgrave passes the baton to archival footage of Eleanor Roosevelt, who can be seen reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as it was adopted in 1948. Elsewhere, Emma Thompson shows up to read newspaper clippings from a decade earlier, when Jews were first being rounded up across Poland. This may be didactic stuff, but it’s addressing a problem that can be easily obscured by subtlety — political convenience must never be prioritized over basic humanity.
While much of “Sea Sorrow” seems organized at random, and the film’s brief visits to the (since demolished) border camp in Calais are no more comprehensive than a segment on the nightly news, the sweep and passion of its argument are enough to excuse the bluntness of its approach.
No offense to the likes of Sally Struthers, but Vanessa Redgrave brings a rare gravity to this kind of thing; when she speaks on behalf of the stranded children who are being denied the value of their own lives, it’s hard to imagine that even Theresa May couldn’t be stirred by the moral clarity of her demands. Most of all, the film’s macro perspective makes a compelling case that human rights need to be reaffirmed as often as they’re threatened, and that Europe’s handling of this crisis will do nothing less than set the tone for the soul of the 21st century.
“Sea Sorrow” premiered in the Special Screenings section of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.