An original and leftfield look at the Afro-Eurasian migrant crisis of recent years, Fire at Sea is, more than anything, a showcase for the extraordinary intelligence of its director, Gianfranco Rosi.

The concept itself is ingenious: the Mediterranean island Lampedusa, a hop and skip between east Tunisia and southwest Sicily, has since the ’90s become a crucial stopgap for African refugees. Rosi juxtaposes a fictionalised, social-realist depiction of the Italian islanders with documentary footage of the migrants variously being rescued from boats, examined on arrival, discussing their plight – and being sometimes laid out for bodybags.

The film’s key problem, however, is that this straightforward approach is hardly built upon. Instead of provoking visceral frustration, Fire at Sea continues to weave two threads with detached weariness – it is clear Rosi cares deeply, and understands the complicated relationship between the varied international communities, but this comes through only with reflection. It is an admirably thoughtful film, one which refuses to reward the distracted viewer, but this rigorous style – and the dense thematic symbolism reminiscent of Joshua Oppenheimer – can hold the audience at arm’s length, with all the cinematic immersion of a Guardian thinkpiece.

The best scene depicts a Nigerian man emphatically narrating his plight to the backdrop of his shipmates’ harmonic chanting. Here, Rosi blends his documentary instinct with a kind of fabulist showmanship, bringing us emotionally closer to the horrors without skimping on the (admittedly all-important) no-nonsense observation. Resigned, inconclusive and hauntingly memorable, Fire at Sea is flawed but vital.

Two excellent films battle for attention, which is rather a brilliant statement. One, a naturalistic look at an anxious boy and his seafaring community; two, a solemn, unadorned journey in cramped boats over menacing seas. Unfortunately, the fabrications diminish the real and Rosi’s masterly construction can’t prevent this feeling distanced. 



DIRECTOR: Gianfranco Rosi

WRITERS: Gianfranco Rosi (story & screenplay), Carla Cattani (idea)

SYNOPSIS: Slow-burning docu-drama following migrants from Africa who, in their thousands per year, must stopover on the Italian island of Lampedusa. As the migrants hit shore, this seafaring community goes about its daily business.