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aka - Fuocoammare
Italy 2016
Directed by
Gianfranco Rosi
108 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Fire At Sea

Synopsis:  A look at life on the Italian island of Lampedusa which lies between Tunisia and Sicily and has become a way station for thousands of refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

If like me, you’ve seen the low-key, enigmatic trailer for Gianfranco Rosi’s film and were intrigued, you might be surprised to discover that its minimalism is not some clever marketing ruse but entirely symptomatic of the film itself. There are characters with their own small stories but no narrative as such and little dialogue. It is a documentary but no conventional case is made. It is rather a kind of cinematic study in which the lives of its water-bound subjects serve as a microcosm of the world at large.

Composing this portrait are a number of threads.  The main one concerns the work of the Italian coastguards to rescue African “boat” people who arrive off Lampedusa crammed into barely sea-worthy vessels. This is counterbalanced by the other main thread, the activities of a young scallywag, Samuele, the 12 year old son of a fisherman, who when not at school goes roaming the island with his friend looking for things to “destroy”, whether in reality with his slingshot, or in imagination. These two strands together constitute an understated but telling contrast – on the hand the refugees who have fled their homes with nothing but the clothes they are wearing, on the other a way of life secure in its time-honoured rhythms. Then there’s a guy who has what appears to be a complete radio studio set up in his bedroom and plays traditional Sicilian popular songs requested by his Auntie and another who goes snorkeling along the wave-battered coastline in search of we know not what. Each of these strands remains effectively separate but looked at from a distance through Signor Rosi’s silently observing camera (he was his own cinematographer), an image of the warp and woof of life emerges.  

Although the primary concern is to bring home the refugees’ plight (the images of dead bodies below deck are extraordinary though the opening titles tell us that many thousands die every year trying to get to their New World) by eschewing the usual programmatic strategies and embedding that plight in the flow of the everyday Fuocoammare seeps into our consciousness much more effectively than many well-meaning, nay, passionate documentaries that seem to have no effect on their target audience.




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