Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 08, 2016 10:32 am 
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Rosi's crabwise look at Lampedusa's refugee crisis packs a gentle wallop

The star of this documentary, which is of the quietly "observational" kind, is a 12-yer-old oddball kid called Samuele Pucillo, who lives on Lampedusa, an island of fishermen. Samuele, however, considers himself a born hunter, not a fisherman, and therefore a misfit on the island. Samuele is small, with a lazy eye, as he finds out in a visit to the oculist, but nonetheless an ace with a slingshot. His manner is droll, his replies well considered. The island's longtime principal doctor, Dott. Pietro Bartolo, calls him "il vechierello," the little old man. We patiently observe Samuele's amusements and hobbies and shaky attempts at being seaworthy to suit his fisherman father: he throws up just riding in a rowboat. Slurping spaghetti diligently, he promises he'll rack up time out on the pontoons, to gain sea legs.

We also visit Giuseppe Fragapane, known as Pippo, the local DJ who plays old Sicilian ballads as requests on his show, "Canzonissima." Samuele's grandma reminisces about sea battles during the war, "Fire at Sea," she calls it -- also the name of an old song ("Fuocoammare," tracked down by an Italian writer Valeria Brigida) whose words nobody remembers. It's all very quiet and quaint and traditionally Italian.

But Lampedusa, a mere eight square miles between Sicily and the coast of Libya, is also something else: the Italian territory boatloads of desperate refugees most often sail toward when they escape from Africa. It is Rosi's alternating coverage of Samuele & Co. with quietly searing observation of the arrivals of refugees on overcrowded boats that gives Fire at Sea the impact, at once direct and metaphorical, that led to Rosi's receiving the Golden Bear at Berlin this year for this film. The refugees are received out in the water, with care, efficiency and kindness, by the looks of it. But the inhabitants of Lampedusa barely see them. Where do they go?

Gianfraco Rosi is a documentary filmmaker who would not seem to seek the limelight. His last film, Sacro GRA (Open Roads 2014), loosely connected to Rome's ring road but mainly a gallery of oddball portraits, won a prize at Venice but was a snooze for some. Obviously he continues to come at his subject matter indirectly in Fire at Sea, but his crabwise and personal look at the urgent problem of mass immigration is bringing him controversy and a sense of relevance as well as a US distributor, Kino Lorber.

Though chatty and ebullient in person, and fluent in English from having studied at NYU Film School, Rosi is self-effacing and shy as a filmmaker. But he is also persistent, and perhaps braver than at first may appear. He also has a sense of humor and a sense of poetry. What impresses is how invisible he appears following Samuele's and his familiy's lives and yet how close he gets to the desperation and vibrant life of the mostly African immigrants he films arriving on boats, dead or alive. Dott. Bartolo, seen at one point attempting to detect the sex of an immigrant woman's unborn twins with ultrasound (he has no idea what her native language is), also recounts his experiences, looking off into space, as the doctor who must not only examine the sick and the healthy foreign arrivals but take samples of the bodies of the many who arrive dead.

The boatloads arriving from Syria, Chad, Niger and who knows where we come back to repeatedly, see them arrive, be patted down, the sick or dying (of dehydration and heat) from the holds of the boats removed as Dott. Bartolo describes. A group of young men play wild makeshift soccer. The dark faces coming off the boats looking into the camera. Another group from Niger chant a "hymn" while one yells a rhythmic voiceover description of their odyssey in English. Dott. Bartolo speaks of pregnant women or women who have just given birth arriving dead. Many, many die in the horrible conditions on board the overcrowded vessels. Or arrive covered with serious burns from the dangerous diesel oil permeating the hold. Once, briefly, we glimpse a hold that is a pile of dead bodies. An inferno. They are like slave ships. It's a relief to return to Samuele and his sliing shots. His life seems simple and fun. But be warned: he tells Dott. Bartolo he has trouble breathing, and the doctor thinks it is not cardiac disease, but anxiety, stress. That's odd, because he seems utterly self-possessed.

Three years ago a boat nearing Lampedusa carrying 500 Eritrean men, women and children caught fire and capsized. Only 155 people survived, and 364 bodies have since been recovered. Dott. Bartolo alludes to this, but Rosi's film is not explicitly factual or informative. It may leave you with many questions. It makes the human details it shows real enough so the questions may linger; but an article in the Guardian will show that Rosi's film is an artificial construct, if one had not figured that out by oneself. For one thing, it leaves out all the details of what happens to the refugees after they're taken off the boats -- though it does seem that in humanitarian terms, Lampedusa has an unusually clean slate.

Fire at Sea/Fuocoammare, 104 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 2016, winning the Golden Bear and three other awards there; some other nominations and awards. Nearly two dozen other festivals, including Telluride and Toronto, and the NYFF Main Slate, as part of which it was screened for this review. It is also Italy's entry for the 2016 Best Foreign Oscar competition. Limited US release 21 Oct.

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