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Review. ‘Fuocoammare,’ the new documentary by Gianfranco Rosi, depicts life on Lampedusa in a way that streaming news coverage cannot. The doc won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale 2016

Fuocoammare, silent death in Lampedusa

The Berlin Film Festival, the weekend of crowds, of sun, of endless queues, of sold out theaters is always hard work. And the German “organizational machine” is not as flawless as legend has it. Indeed Germany’s Merkelian policy of rigor and control seems in trouble. One could even find rats in the streets. (European common denominator, or nostalgia for Nosferatu?)

Saturday was the day of Italian film: that is, for the only one in competition, Fuocoammare (“Fire at Sea”), a new documentary by Gianfranco Rosi, who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with his 2013 film Sacro GRA and created the masterpiece Below Sea Level.

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One of Italy’s best directors, Rosi is among the few who can be trusted to present a theme as complex as that of the migrant crisis on the island of Lampedusa — and especially an issue so extensively chronicled. But Fuocoammare has little to do with the stream of news images.

There are no talking heads, interviews or dissertations. And Rosi manages to film what most cannot: the death, the pain, the bodies of corpses covered in bags that are brought up every day from barges in the middle of the sea, each with its own story that we will never know but, at that point, are not important. The film does this with modesty, and these are the strongest moments of the film, as it follows the actions of rescue workers. In their eyes you see and share the feeling at times — too many times — of helplessness. We listen to the voices, the radio cries for help rolling in every day, responding to them a task that seems infinite.

But the island is not only that. There are its inhabitants, there is its life, there are the gestures of normality: going to school, fighting bad weather in fishing vessels, taking care of the house. Successful migrant landings seem overshadowed by radio broadcasters relaying the numbers of drowned. “Poor Christians,” says a woman stirring tomato sauce.

The narrative thread moves along these alternating planes of reality. The character-guide of the islanders is Samuel, a rather odd 12-year-old son of a fisherman, who speaks in a dialect, shoots at birds all day with a slingshot, has a lazy eye and suffers from seasickness. Shirking school, he spends his days walking around the island, which appears deserted, with a friend who follows along with his own slingshot.

The scheme is a bit like that of Sacro GRA, a story about the ring road surrounding Rome. Both trace a kind of circularity in a closed space, where all the figures, with the exception of Samuel, always return to their original form. They remain there, accented, with some comically winking at the eternal DNA of Italy — all laugh when the kid talks and sucks spaghetti from the plate — surrounded by holy virgins and pious fathers. Silence as the diver plunges into the waters every morning looking for urchins, immersed in everyday life.

Samuel shoots at the sky with fake weapons and whistles to goldfinches. He searches for skipping stones at night, and the viewer searches, too. Here, the metaphor of the boy’s glasses and his lazy eye, (a bit like The Look of Silence, the magnificent Oppenheimer film) seems to be the director’s point of view, or at least the place he chose for himself despite the invisibility of his presence. Rosi spent almost a year on the island, and it is understood that the islanders have become accustomed to him. Yet Rosi does not seem to find a relationship, except with the kid, and even so, the relationship is always in the distance; of the islanders we know nothing except a few fragments of newspaper, cooking, knitting, out fishing. There’s never even a comment on what’s happening, except once from the doctor. There’s not even a conflict.

Is this the lazy eye? Becoming accustomed to what happens in front of us? Refusing to look even when it is so close to you? Rosi is not a moralist but rather a researcher in moral tension, giving migrants — to whom we have become “accustomed” — a strength and never-before-seen testimony. Even though there are no relationships with them, either, there are moments of truth, and there is a search for an awareness, a consciousness. And from the filmmaker there is a need to find an image that respects each of these people, restoring their individuality.

It is a strong demand, and important, because as the protagonists of the beautiful film The Last Days of City, say, “Instead of talking about the film, just talk about politics.” The cinema must be able to respond to the confrontations of our times — “We are all Africans,” Meryl Streep said at the opening the festival — and the choice of an image is in itself a political act. Because even in its uncertainties, Fuocoammare it is an important gamble with our time and with its fragility.

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