Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi (Sacro GRA) profiles the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, a refugee landing spot during the European migrant crisis of 2015, but Fire at Sea isn't structured like most documentaries comprised of interviews, expert witness and narration. Rosi instead puts storytelling in the back seat and allows his footage to be interpreted differently from viewer to viewer, careful not to coddle our perception of immigration as he depicts the world of hardships faced by migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East in the midst of exposure, hunger and illness.

Rosi provides parallels between the perils of migrating through the Mediterranean on a sinking boat and the everyday life on Lampedusa. The footage focuses on a 12-year-old boy named Samuele Pucillo who endlessly explores the island in search of adventure. Rosi captures Pucillo's routine and compares it to that of a refugee—Pucillo plays with his slingshot and struggles with poor vision and shortness of breath as refugees are lifelessly dragged from their boat by the Italian Coastguard to be either rescued or buried. Fire at Sea succeeds in conveying the trials faced by the refugees with ruthless and raw footage.

Though Fire at Sea does well at establishing its message, it fails to evolve into a full-fledged narrative. Rosi's completed work is disorganized and sporadic and struggles with consistency and purpose. Even the juxtaposition of dying refugees and a young boy at play is more of a cause for discomfort than a political statement on the truth of the crisis. The film's driving force is fleeting as the minutes go by, and though we are drawn to the refugees' song of struggle as they proudly sing from underneath their boat, viewers might become desensitized, much like the Sicilian islanders, thereby making it easy to lose most of our emotional investment in the story.


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Fire at Sea
Center for Contemporary Arts,
108 min