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Review: ‘Fire at Sea’ is a harrowing look at the everyday horrors of the international refugee crisis

‘Fire at Sea’
A scene from the documentary “Fire at Sea.”
(Kino Lorber)

What “Fire at Sea” appears to be and what it is are not the same thing, and it’s that difference that makes it a masterful documentary. 

On the simplest level, this is a nonfiction film that won the Berlin Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Bear, a film about the leading humanitarian crisis of our day: the harrowing plight of refugees fleeing the world’s death zones and headed in the flimsiest of boats to the refuge of continental Europe, which they do not always reach.

But to present things that way is to envision a different, perhaps more didactic and moralistic film than Italian director Gianfranco Rosi has provided.

It’s not that Rosi, whose “Sacro GRA” won the Golden Lion in Venice in 2013, is not deeply concerned about the situation or that what he’s given us isn’t a devastating experience. He is and the film very much is as well. 

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Rather it’s that “Fire at Sea” goes about its business in a quiet way, with unobtrusive yet powerful simplicity, using an unconventional structure and cinematic artistry to make its points.

To enhance his ability to blend into situations, director Rosi worked as his own cinematographer, and he is someone with an impeccable eye, able to make a shot of a helicopter emerging from a boat breathtaking as well as evocatively capture the anguish and despair on refugee faces.

Except for some moments on the high seas, “Fire at Sea” is filmed entirely on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, a destination that may sound familiar because the 17th century ruler who gave the location his name was the ancestor of Sicilian writer Giuseppi de Lampedusa, whose great novel “The Leopard” became a memorable Luchino Visconti film starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale. 

As type on screen tells us at “Fire at Sea’s” start, Lampedusa’s place in the Mediterranean Sea between Africa and Sicily has meant that over the last 20 years some 400,000 refugees have landed on its shores and an additional 15,000 have died in the attempt.

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Filmmaker Rosi did not make a quick visit to Lampedusa, he rented a small house and lived there for an entire year, long enough to gain hard-to-come-by access to the island’s detention center as well to spend a month on an Italian naval vessel patrolling the waters off Africa.

Rosi’s notion was to convey the refugee crisis in the context of the daily life of the islanders, who do not directly interact with the immediately sequestered refugees but are always aware of their presence. 

Introduced first is 12-year-old Samuele, the bright, inquisitive son of a fisherman, as self-possessed as any adult but, when we meet him, intensely involved in finding the best possible piece of wood to fashion a slingshot.

The film returns again and again to Samuele as he and a friend engage in activities like cutting faces into cactuses to make them into slingshot targets, going through the kind of timeless childhood rituals that could have taken place decades earlier.

Cutting away from Samuele and his slingshot search, “Fire at Sea” finds Italian naval rescue vessels and a conversation in English between the rescuers and someone on a sinking ship, desperation in his voice as he says, “We beg you in the name of God” to find and save them.

“Fire at Sea” records several of these conversations, making it clear that the situation at Lampedusa is not the kind of one-time emergency that makes the nightly news but a constant, day-in and day-out litany of desperation, a human tide of refugees from countries too numerous to mention.

The islanders are always aware of the crisis; the local radio station always broadcasts when ships are in trouble, leading Samuele’s grandmother, in one instance, to exclaim “poor souls!” when hearing of the dead from one sinking.

But while the islanders never get to go inside the refugee detention center, “Fire at Sea” delicately takes us there, observing a Muslim prayer service, a makeshift soccer game, even an African musician rapping about his refugee experience. 

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And Rosi’s eye, as always, is alive to the visual moment, whether it be the looks of exhaustion and despair on faces or the incongruity of the gold-colored thin metallic blankets each refugee receives.  

The link between the two communities is Lampedusa’s only physician, Dr. Pietro Bartolo, the man who for decades has been the one who determines who is healthy enough for the center, who needs the hospital, who is dead. His heartfelt monologue -- “you never get used to examining cadavers, how can you get used to dead women and children?” -- becomes the moral center of the film.

“Fire at Sea” does take us through the gate of hell at one point, into a ship where dozens have died, but it is the contrast with island life that makes those moments so potent. What these people have left behind, and what they are seeking, is in some ways the world Samuele and his family quietly epitomize.

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No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

Playing Laemmle Ahyrna Fine Arts, Beverly Hills, Playhouse 7, Pasadena.

Critic’s Choice. “Fire at Sea.” Winner of Berlin’s Golden Bear, this documentary on the refugee crisis goes about its business in a quiet way, with sureness and powerful simplicity, using an unconventional structure and cinematic artistry to make its points.- Kenneth Turan

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