Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi makes documentaries about individuals at different junctures in the process of traumatic recovery. Fire at Sea follows two groups of subjects, one whose past traditions are in question and one whose present geographical placement is unknown. Set on and around Lampedusa, an island 70 miles east from the African coast and 120 miles south from Sicily, the film juxtaposes the islanders’ quotidian lives with those of the African refugees traversing the surrounding, often torrential waters of the Mediterranean Sea. These dual threads constitute parallel trajectories that invite the viewer to ponder their relationship with one another.
Rosi refrains from contextualizing his images with details that would immediately make them easier to process. On Lampedusa, Samuele, an adolescent boy, sits quietly at the base of a tree. His initial inactivity precedes a relatively minor series of tribulations and misadventures that he’ll undergo throughout the film, such as being fitted with a corrective device for his lazy eye, suffering through the demands of his English homework, and launching rocks from his slingshot at numerous objects across the island. Rosi presents a boy who’s preoccupied with discovering the surrounding terrain through small acts of violent agency. By cutting away branches, carving faces into cacti, and play-shooting at passing ships with his friend, Samuele exhibits the traditional characteristics of a burgeoning masculinity.
On another side of the island, a naval control center receives calls from nearby ships overloaded with African migrants fleeing their war-torn nations. Rosi overlays audio of refugees begging for assistance with images of a calm nighttime sea, so that auditory cries for help are given visual counterpoint through bright searchlights that cast a small diameter across the open waters. By introducing the navy’s efforts through a failure of communication and coordinates, Fire at Sea initiates a narrative that probes the fundamental gap between wanting to help and actually being able to do so.
Though the film’s title clearly alludes to the migrant crisis, it’s given alternative significance through Samuele’s conversation with his grandmother, in which he asks about her relationship with his grandfather. Explaining why he was afraid to go out at night as a young man, she says, “It was wartime…the ships fired rockets. It was like there was a fire at sea. The sea turned red.” The story recalls an earlier instance where Samuele’s father explains his days on the high seas as a sailor that partially complement the boy’s romantic notions of valor. Yet, by staging the father’s recollections in a static shot that undermines them as a source of excitement for the viewer, Rosi indicates a potential emptiness to this rhetoric. We’re not simply viewing a happy moment between father and son, but witnessing the father’s rehearsal, and attempted transference to Samuele, of personal experience.
The value of the father’s story, and the status of preserving tradition in Western nations, is what’s most at stake in Fire at Sea. The oscillation between two narrative threads, especially mentions of suffering or murdered African children, implicitly asks what Samuele’s stories to his own, hypothetical son might look like years on. The stories relayed to Samuele focus on the particulars of his father’s experience (sleeping arrangements, how long he was at sea, saying “it was a hard life”), but these past details seem like paltry inconveniences in relation to the realities African refugees currently face. The question becomes: If Samuele’s parents or educators won’t introduce him to the changing nature of his country (it’s never mentioned by them), how will he come to know Lampedusa in the present?
Though a radio broadcast discussing the crisis recurs throughout, Samuele is never asked to grapple with the realities occurring just out of eyeshot. Yet Fire at Sea does see such events, and implicitly asks what’s to be gained from preserving Samuele’s relative innocence to such matters. In the film’s most direct access to trauma, a Nigerian refugee sings, surrounded by fellow Africans, about perseverance through struggle as the defining characteristic of his life. Rosi’s unbroken close-up of the man’s testament isn’t exploitation, but a direct expression of his condition and seems as close as cinema can come to relating a subject’s emotional state without authorial intrusion.
In forgoing concretizing claims or overt, symbolic assertions of meaning, Rosi peels away any pretense of resolution to the migrant crisis. Instead, Fire at Sea constructs a history that finds stability in its certainty that empathy, as the highest form of human connection, must anchor any constructive response to displaced refugees. Pietro Bartolo, an island physician, becomes an example of these principles. His treatment of refugees extends from monitoring sonograms with pregnant women to immediately assessing a refugee’s injuries and physical condition. In the film’s only statement of a direct perspective on the matter, the doctor says, “It’s the duty of every human being, if you’re human, to help these people.”
Bartolo, in the tradition of liberal humanism, advocates consciousness-raising as the way toward resolving this crisis. But Fire at Sea, with its labyrinthine and indirect presentation of culture clash, perceives a certain naïveté in those beliefs. Rosi’s solution peers deeper into the fold of Western traditions; cultivating an attraction to violence on masculine terms seems a fundamental component of Samuele’s cultural education. In linking Samuele’s boyhood activities—including the miming of violent action—with victims of ideological warfare, Rosi asks for our introspection and cultural reconciliation to become as radically associative as his audacious historicizing in the present tense.