There are two distinct movies in Gianfranco Rosi's Fire at Sea. The director, an Italian documentarian whose observational films demonstrate a formal rigor that often brings them close to experimental cinema and installation work, has trained his lens on Lampedusa, a sleepy island south of Sicily perched about 70 kilometers from the African coast. Its geographical position has for years made Lampedusa the landing place for refugees and migrants fleeing the chaos in Libya, Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire and elsewhere.
But seen through Rosi's gentle, patient eyes, Lampedusa itself is a quaint little world where the easy pace of daily life has not been entirely disrupted. What little connection these people have to the desperate refugees washing up on their shores is encapsulated in a quick utterance by an aging housewife. When she hears that 60 dead bodies have been recovered from a recent wreck, she mutters, quickly, "Oh, poor souls" without even lifting her head. The horror is already background noise.
That calm, quotidian pastoral is one movie. But Rosi cuts to the other movie, the one that follows those souls fished out of Lampedusa's coastal waters. Some will criticize Fire at Sea for its pointed disconnect. Half-singing, half-wailing, a man recounts how he and his companions fled the chaos of Nigeria only to find themselves faced with ISIS in Libya. "The mountains could not hide us, the people could not hide us, so we went to the sea," he cries. Another man cries tears of literal blood. How do you reconcile trauma like this with the easy rhythms of ordinary life? You don't, Rosi's film tells us, and to do so would be obscene.