Seeing Clearly

Tony Pipolo on Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea

Gianfranco Rosi, Fire at Sea, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 114 minutes.

GIANFRANCO ROSI’S award-winning Fire at Sea comes as close as possible to achieving genuine objectivity, a quality that eludes most documentaries, including those that claim not to espouse a partisan viewpoint. True objectivity does not preclude moral conviction. A strong point of view, manifested through a visual style—the hallmarks of authorship in narrative filmmaking—also characterized documentary filmmakers, from Robert Flaherty to Errol Morris. Since Rosi is the cinematographer of most of his movies, his perspective is literally synonymous with his camera’s eye—gazing with admirable equanimity at his subjects, whether that is Samuel, the young boy on the island of Lampedusa whose daily life we follow, or the pitiable migrants from north Africa who risk starvation and drowning to board overloaded vessels to reach European shores. No rhetorical commentary accompanies Rosi’s material, no talking heads attempt to explain it, and no music cues viewers as to how they should feel. Rosi’s tools are a keen and patient eye, a humanist sensibility, and a natural tendency to ignore agendas, political or otherwise. It is no surprise that all three are well-served by his consistent, uncalculated use of long takes.

As the largest island of the Italian Pelagie group in the Mediterranean south of Sicily and closest to North Africa, Lampedusa has been the destination of twenty thousand migrants over the last twenty years; another fifteen thousand died trying to get there. It has served as a gateway for hordes of people trying to get to other parts of Europe. Consistent with Rosi’s ethos, the rescue missions we witness accurately reflect the humanitarian policy of the island, which contrasts with the more rigid position of Italy itself. This is made clear by a doctor whose reverence for human life and description of the horrors visited upon the human body are moving precisely because, like Rosi’s overall approach, they are understated.

This is also true of the structure of Fire at Sea, the title of which refers to a popular song linked to the “rockets” that exploded in the sky during World War II. Rosi alternates scenes of the island’s everyday life with those of the rescues that have become no less a part of it. Inevitably, a contrast emerges between the desperation of those without homes facing immediate perils and unknown futures and those whose lives, however ordinary, epitomize the unsung values of safety and security: a woman’s patient brewing of the morning’s espresso for her husband and herself; a radio DJ answering phone requests from residents he seems to know; an undersea diver searching for sea urchins; and of course, Samuel, whose handcrafting of a slingshot, amateur hunting excursions, efforts to speak English, and slurping up spaghetti have charms of their own. We watch him learning to negotiate a pontoon to prepare himself, as his teacher says, to be a sailor—the destiny of most of the island’s young men. If the very ordinariness of these activities renders them precious, such an impression emanates naturally from the material and not from unwarranted stress by Rosi.

Rosi’s cinematography is as unceremonious as it is stunning. Against those who think a serious subject is compromised by a handsome look, Rosi proves that “matching” subject to visual tone is another form of editorializing. If anything, the majestic beauty of the sea and the sky as the backdrop for the human saga unfolding around them, while not played up for facile irony, is a sober reminder of the blunt juxtaposition that the world itself offers beyond the contrived efforts of any documentarian. This is as true of the film as a whole as it is of its last few shots of the gray, surging sea, the vigilant apparatus of a rescue ship against the nighttime sky, and a pale moon glimpsed behind clouds. If any single trait defines Rosi’s approach to his work, it might well be trust: trust in human nature to reveal itself without adornment, trust in his camera to observe the world without artificial technique, and trust in the viewer to see, reflect, and learn without the prodding of well-meaning sermonizing. Fire at Sea is nothing less than a work of moral character.

Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea opens Friday, October 21 in select theaters. A retrospective of Rosi’s films will play October 28 through November 3 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.