Rachel Donadio. New York Times. For a film that makes use of long silences, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary “Fire at Sea,” about the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa — for years the European point of arrival for boatloads of North African migrants — has made some noise.Paolo Sorrentino, the Oscar-winning director, stirred controversy recently when he said it was “useless and masochistic” for Italy to have chosen a documentary, and not a feature film, as its submission for the foreign-language-film Academy Award, however much he admired the work.
But his was a rare note of dissent. The film — in which Lampedusa becomes a metaphor for how Italy and the rest of Europe are handling the influx of migrants — has struck a nerve this year. After it won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February, at a moment when the arrival of Syrian refugees had been reshaping Germany, institutions began to take notice. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy gave DVDs to 27 of his European counterparts, a reminder of how Italy, whose Coast Guard routinely rescues rickety boats of migrants, could use more help from other countries. And it was screened for Pope Francis and for the European Parliament.
“When I go to different screenings, people come up to me very moved, and they hug me, and they say, ‘What can I do?’ ” Mr. Rosi said in a recent interview in Paris, where the film was released last month. “It’s hard to answer that. The film presents Lampedusa as a clash of two worlds: that of the 6,000 islanders, who have lived off fishing for millenniums, and that of the hundreds of thousands of migrants, most from sub-Saharan Africa, who reach the island before being sent to other holding centers in Italy. Lampedusa is “a metaphor for Europe, for these two worlds which do not encounter each other,” Mr. Rosi said. The film is anchored by two figures: a boy, Samuele Pucillo, now 14, who clambers around the island with his homemade slingshot; and Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who for years was the only doctor on Lampedusa and had to examine the bodies of every migrant who died at sea. “There was a need for me to change the point of view, because every time Lampedusa was narrated from the media, from the TV, it was always linked to a tragedy, to death,” Mr. Rosi said.
Dr. Bartolo is the film’s conscience, Mr. Rosi said, and Samuele its unconscious. At the Berlin Film Festival, Dr. Bartolo recalled a shipwreck off Lampedusa in 2013, in which the death toll rose by two, to 368. “I saw them one by one, and I had to count them,” Dr. Bartolo said at an emotional news conference. “Two isn’t a number. They’re two people.” The film will be shown at the New York Film Festival on Saturday and opens in the United States on Oct. 21. It has received glowing reviews in France, Germany and Britain, with critics praising its “aesthetic morality,” “political awareness” and lack of melodrama. (In Europe, the film has done best at the box office in Germany, followed by Britain, where it opened during the heated debate ahead of the Brexit vote. The film did less well in Greece and Turkey.)
The director had rare access to an immigrant-holding center on Lampedusa. There, the camera settles on a Nigerian man. “When I asked one of them, ‘What gives you the desire to cross the sea with the risk that maybe you will die?,’ he said, ‘It’s the word “maybe,”’ ” Mr. Rosi recalled. “‘Because here we will certainly die. Crossing the sea, maybe we’d die.’”
Born in Eritrea and raised in Italy, Mr. Rosi is drawn to people on the margins. His documentary “Sacro GRA” — about people who live around Rome’s ring road, known as the G.R.A. — won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2013. His 2010 film, “El Sicario, Room 164,” is about a killer turned informer from a Mexican drug cartel. (The Brooklyn Academy of Music will feature a retrospective of Mr. Rosi’s films from Oct. 28 through Nov. 3.) Mr. Rosi declined to comment on Mr. Sorrentino’s criticism, beyond noting that Bernardo Bertolucci had supported the choice. The film was also submitted in the documentary category. (The academy will announce its nonfiction shortlist later this year.) Mr. Rosi said he liked removing as much as possible in his films, so that only the outlines of the story and the strongest emotions remained. He sketched some wavy lines in his notebook, showing how Italy had expanded its territorial waters farther south, to allow the Coast Guard to intercept boats of migrants closer to Libya, following a tragic accident in 2015 that left more than 500 people dead. The film isn’t only about Lampedusa, it’s also about borders, Mr. Rosi said. “These people die in the sea by boat, but thousands of people die in the desert, crossing to reach freedom,” he said of immigrants trying to get to the United States. “In the end these tragedies are universal.”