Lampedusa is a Mediterranean island midway between Sicily and the coast of Africa. Those who live there are fishermen of Italian extraction. Considering that their lives are only as secure as the next catch, life on Lampedusa is ordinary. The women fry peppers in olive oil for a mid-day meal, prepare a demi-tasse and down it in two sips, and call in song favorite requests to the local radio station, which they dedicate as talismans to their men at sea. Samuele a 12-year-old boy, possessed of a candor and directness that is a magnet for friends, and amuses his elders, is industrious in the mastery of survival skills. He schools his friend in which are with the trees with the most resistant wood, the kind that make the best sling-shots. If you apply yourself, sometimes you can find a tree limb with a labor-saving natural “handle.” Samuele is teaching himself to perfect this rudimentary weapon so that he can improve his aim, as he practices it on island birds. His schoolteachers hector him and his classmates to learn English, but there are no tourists on the island and so motivation to learn is scant. The students fidget when called upon, and their teachers appear perplexed.
The distinguishing feature of the island—its location—makes it the point of debarkation for a steady stream of immigrants, mostly Ethiopian and Eritrean—but also others—who arrive with sometimes lethal burns from leaked diesel fuel, dead, nearly dead, or alive, in overloaded boats that could barely withstand the journey. Helmsmen make their entreaties for rescue in English over long-shore radios, and the ill-equipped but fastidious crews on shore sort their locations, and triage the passengers in an orderly and coolly efficient manner. The hardboiled reception is clearly a tried and true method to inure the islanders against the waves of malnourished, dehydrated, and often traumatized refugees who receive thin reflective plastic capes, and are warehoused in lean-tos and other sparsely-outfitted shelters, where there is no pretense of hope for a future in Lampedusa . In fact, shots of Samuele’s classroom, reveal no students of obvious African descent.
Gianfranco Rosi was born in Asmara, Eritrea. He received his university education in Italy, and at New York University Film School. “Fire at Sea” follows a succession of prize-winning documentaries, several of them with oceanic themes. In 2010, he shot the feature film “El Sicario – Room 164,” about a Mexican drug cartel, and it won the Fipresci Award at the Venice International Film Festival, as well as other prizes.
Rosi instils “Fire at Sea” with a naturalist rhythm that echoes the ebb and flow of the tides, with their waves breaking over Lambedusa’s minimally-lit shoreline. The resulting laconic pace contrasts with chorus of shrill cries for help or despairing sobs from the swells of refugees. As Samuele learns that what he thinks of as his grandfather’s adventures at sea have actually imbued the old man’s life with melancholy, he becomes less driven and more contemplative. As the film closes, instead of aiming to kill birds with his slingshot, Samuele is learning their song in an effort to communicate with them in ones and twos.