I remember the exact moment when Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea lost me. In an extended sequence, a young boy growing up on Lampedusa—a tiny Italian island almost 8 square miles large—goes to a doctor’s appointment. The doctor grills him about his health and his new pair of glasses designed to cure his lazy eye. They talk back and forth, the doctor responding good-naturedly to the boy’s all-grown-up precociousness. I distinctly remember thinking that it was funny. But that’s the problem: Fire at Sea shouldn’t be funny. In fact, it should be the farthest thing from funny. For Lampedusa is smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean and serves as a primary entry-point for desperate African refugees, many of them fleeing war and economic turmoil. In the last 20 years, 400,000 migrants have landed on their shores, 15,000 of them dying en route. If not for a devoted team of medical professionals and naval rescue personnel, that number might be even higher. Fire at Sea seeks to tell their stories. But you could hardly tell from all of the damned scenes with the little boy.
It’s easy to see what Rosi was trying to do: juxtapose the horrors of the migrant crisis with the quotidian struggles of the native islanders. Long lethargic scenes of the islanders puttering around the island and going about their everyday lives underscore how detached they have become from the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Life goes on in Lampedusa. An elderly woman makes her bed, kisses the portrait of her dead husband, prays for a good day. A disc jockey sings along to golden oldies while requests and dedications flood his phone line. A deep sea diver collects sea urchins from the bottom of the ocean. And every so often a boat crammed beyond capacity with starved, dehydrated, half-dead migrants gets rescued just offshore.
I get it. I really do.
But here’s the problem: Rosi completely fails to connect the two sides of the story together. During the entire film, there is only one time when any of the townspeople not directly involved with the rescue efforts seems affected by the migrants—the aforementioned elderly woman says “God help them” as she listens to a radio announcement about a refugee ship that sank before it could be reached by the navy. She then continues preparing pasta for dinner without missing a beat. For 20-30 minutes at a time the film completely forgets that it’s about desperate migrants, instead concerning itself with character studies that go nowhere. The boy I mentioned at the start of this review is essentially the main character. We see him struggle in school, get fitted for new glasses, learn how to row a boat, bike around the island, and play imaginary war with his friend. At first I thought that maybe he was the son of one of the naval paramedics. But no, he’s just a random child the film arbitrarily decided to devote over 1/3 of its time to. I kept thinking that maybe the film would tie the other featured characters into the larger narrative. Maybe the deep sea diver does freelance work retrieving dead bodies from the ocean floor. Maybe the disc jockey sometimes gets radio calls from stranded migrants. Maybe the elderly woman spends the occasional sleepless night patrolling the shoreline. But no, no, and no. They’re just ordinary residents. They have nothing to do with the crisis.
All told, Fire at Sea is a devastating, heart-breaking 30 minute documentary about Lampedusa’s immigrant crisis. But it’s spread out with inconsequential nonsense that only serves to devalue the horror of their situation. When you cut between comical scenes of the boy trying and failing to row a boat in the harbor with footage of 40 dead bodies being recovered from a ship’s hold, it spits in the face of their suffering. When you cut from the boy and his friend innocently trying to repair broken cacti with duct tape to a medical worker explaining how migrants can get third-degree burns en route to Europe from physical contact to diesel fuel mixed with seawater, it makes this ongoing tragedy seem like a joke. I have seen many, many films this year which are objectively worse than Fire at Sea. But none have been so grossly, almost sociopathically miscalculated.
Let me tell you a true story. The audience I saw Fire at Sea with at the New York Film Festival vocally hated it. I remember talking with one of my critic friends that they might as well recut the film’s trailer to make it seem like a happy-go-lucky family comedy about the main boy. We joked that it would be set to Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill and only mention the suffering African migrants in passing as supporting characters. “And you just know they would cast Meryl Streep as the boy’s mom.” I joked. “She know she can play anything!”
Imagine my surprise when I got home and discovered that none other than Meryl Streep had served as the chair of the jury at the Berlin Film Festival where this abominable film received the Golden Bear prize.
Touché, Mrs. Streep.