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Critics reviews
Fire at Sea
Gianfranco Rosi France, 2016
The film is an unabashedly minimalist teaching moment, organically attuned to the small but potent details of human interaction that transcend nationality and class. It demands the same kind of patience and empathy that so many first responders have been forced to master with each distressed new arrival.
January 31, 2017
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Rosi might be the best documentarian in the world, and that’s not just because he shot the profound, metaphorical, utterly breathtaking Fire at Sea essentially by himself. He still believes in a cinema of contradictions, irresolvabilities, poetic recombinations, art from reality, human understanding from observation and montage. He believes in documentary.
January 13, 2017
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The coexistence of everydayness and disaster on a Sicilian island is what makes this Italian documentary seem most contemporary.
December 24, 2016
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The sea is as important as the island in this elemental film… Rosi explains nothing except through images.
December 12, 2016
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The bifurcation between their world and Samuele’s, a metaphor for the gulf between the dispossessed and the rest of us, might feel too on-the-nose if only it were not the awful truth.
December 09, 2016
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Rosi has indicated in interviews that he intends his documentary to be an impetus to action by making us see this crisis as a human tragedy, not the anonymous flood of statistics and photos found in the news. Rather than present us with coldly factual images, he focuses on personal interactions, choosing to examine this crisis from its human interior—the HBO special rather than the evening recap. At its best, Fire at Sea is able to do just that.
November 01, 2016
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Samuele’s domestic routine, which includes regular visits to the ophthalmologist (he has a lazy eye), playing with his slingshot, and noisily slurping up spaghetti, slowly develops into a touching coming of age narrative that anchors the chaos swirling around him. Add Rosi’s stunning (and always overcast) vistas into the mix and the overall result is something indescribably impressionistic, often hypnotic, and disarmingly intimate.
October 28, 2016
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It is precisely the artist’s mission of recording history, of giving form to the present moment, that Gianfranco Rosi has carried out boldly and thoroughly in his new documentary Fire at Sea. In engaging with the migrant crisis, he stands at the polar opposite of sentimental popular journalism, instead proposing a deliberately withdrawn and poetic meta-reflection on the collapse of modern civilization.
October 24, 2016
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Rosi’s film is thoughtful and well-constructed. It doesn’t strive for the epic feel of Visconti’s “La terra trema,” the 1948 epic about Sicilian fisherman that’s been an inescapable influence on Italian film. Its intimacy is a boon. But as laudable as the movie is, it does not quite achieve greatness. That’s the fault of both its indirectness and its obviousness.
October 21, 2016
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Europe’s migrant crisis—the mortal dangers that migrants face while travelling to Europe, and the difficulties of European institutions in receiving them—is given a prettified and distracted yet devoted consideration in Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary… Rosi gets close to his subjects without hearing from them; he observes them in a pristine isolation that implies anything and nothing.
October 21, 2016
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Rosi’s cinematography is as unceremonious as it is stunning. Against those who think a serious subject is compromised by a handsome look, Rosi proves that “matching” subject to visual tone is another form of editorializing. If anything, the majestic beauty of the sea and the sky as the backdrop for the human saga unfolding around them, while not played up for irony, is a sober reminder of the blunt juxtaposition that the world itself offers beyond the contrived efforts of any documentarian.
October 20, 2016
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Some will criticize Fire at Sea for its pointed disconnect… Perhaps the way to counter that would have been to find a child among the refugees and follow his or her experiences, as a counterweight to Samuele’s story. But that, I suspect, would miss the larger idea. There is nothing natural or commonplace about what these people are going through. The breach between these two worlds is part of Rosi’s formal and moral gambit. So he lets us into the refugees’ lives slowly.
October 20, 2016
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The doctor’s humane response leads to the film’s grim apex, where Rosi… shows us body after body being unloaded from a failing vessel in an endlessly dismaying stream. The film leaves a mark without using the usual leavening devices — talking heads, graphics giving numbers and statistics, underlining music for emotional emphasis — that would make it merely well-intentioned agitprop; it’s art made under the most grueling of conditions.
October 20, 2016
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Essentially, the vacuum between the film’s two disparate threads does all the work: If we’re shown a little boy who says he’s anxious for no reason, and we’re also shown numerous unrelated images of people dying nearby, there’s really not much to do except assume a cause-and-effect relationship, however specious said assumption might be. That’s how the human mind works, and Rosi takes full advantage of our natural inclination to connect dots.
October 19, 2016
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Throughout, Rosi’s camera presents us with densely beautiful images, often locked down on a tripod, composed with an eye toward symmetry, and held for extended duration. That these framings often capture complete actions (say, the takeoff of a helicopter from a landing pad) suggests a filmmaker who has witnessed these events enough times to know how they will play out and has placed his camera in the most advantageous spot to view them.
October 08, 2016
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Documentarian Rosi was confronted with a dilemma: How to make a doc novel enough to engage audiences about a subject covered so often in the 24-hour news cycle that interest has waned to very little? Such is the status of the migrant crisis in Europe. More shocking, and thus more challenging, is that the suffering refugees have been denied their humanity by the Europeans and become mere abstractions… Rosi’s solution is to reverse some otherwise unquestioned conventions of docmaking.
October 07, 2016
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Disjunction is the film’s sole, and singly troubling, assertion. Unlike the uncivil servants of I, Daniel Blake, no villains are onscreen; Lampedusa’s beleaguered doctor examines a pregnant woman and, later, the anxious but apparently hale Samuele. Nothing seems to connect these neighboring narratives but the sea.
October 06, 2016
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Fire works best as a ground-level view of a land upon which play out narratives tragic, heroic, terrifying, miraculous, and also quotidian, these strands occasionally crossing and occasionally passing each other by. With this unique, unsettling film, Rosi suggests that historical phenomena should be seen in both disturbing and desultory detail—the director opens up to his audience questions about the close coexistence of survival and the everyday rather than providing any prefabricated answers.
September 27, 2016
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In the film’s most direct access to trauma, a Nigerian refugee sings, surrounded by fellow Africans, about perseverance through struggle as the defining characteristic of his life. Rosi’s unbroken close-up of the man’s testament isn’t exploitation, but a direct expression of his condition and seems as close as cinema can come to relating a subject’s emotional state without authorial intrusion.
September 22, 2016
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Hailing from the same breed of striking experimentation that initially garnered Italian director Gianfranco Rosi international acclaim, this riveting new essay on the European migration crisis became the first documentary ever to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Steeped in verité yet still novel in its approach, Fire at Sea’s withdrawn yet intimate fly-on-the-wall approach refrains from drawing any condemning conclusions or didactic calls to action.
September 04, 2016
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Rosi’s restraint is reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s—though his use of second-unit cinematography and Foley bring his work a step closer to fiction. Constructed as much as reported, Fire at Sea is a beautiful artifact presented for your contemplation. It is also an act of conscience. And it is harrowing.
September 03, 2016
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It’s a documentary, but much more than a factual recounting of events in its poetic, meditative tone and depths of wordless emotion. The experiences of a boy from a fishing family and a doctor treating refugees and locals are also woven into this essential film.
July 18, 2016
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A genuine triumph for Rosi, its distinctive formal strategy respectful of its subjects and offering a perfect expressive conduit for the director’s characteristic musing on how film might bring points of contact between seemingly distant poles of human experience. It may not grab you by the lapels and preach to you, but its quiet intensity ultimately offers more satisfying rewards, exquisitely enhanced by Rosi’s painterly eye for Lampedusa’s magical vistas of land and sea.
June 10, 2016
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This is a political advocacy doc, but under a more artful guise… Rosi films a refugee cataloguing the abuses he’s endured in the form of a rousing prayer-chant, and it’s a scene which succinctly captures the horrifying context of the so-called “migrant crisis” while criticising the mis- directed indignation of the west.
June 09, 2016
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People objected to the film’s devastating beauty—one perhaps doesn’t want to know how many sea rescues Rosi must have observed to finally be able to shoot one in a fashion almost Fordian in its nocturnal grandeur and feeling for ritual as the core of human existence.
April 29, 2016
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This is a deeply troubling, yet surprisingly beautiful work that you can’t help but describe—hackneyed though the phrase is—as a wake-up call for a Europe increasingly deadened to compassion.
March 04, 2016
…They could be a part of their own idiosyncratic, charming documentary on Lampedusa, but I’m not yet convinced they fit alongside or woven between the more vital story of searching, contacting and the clinically embracing those who are so desperately fleeing misery.
February 18, 2016
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As the film proceeds it becomes clear that the early focus on Samuele and his compatriots is crucial, not only in suggesting how little the passage of the migrants through the island seems to affect the daily lives of most Lampedusans, but also in rendering the film watchable: were it focused exclusively on the experiences of the migrants, it might be too distressing to bear.
February 15, 2016
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Any documentary that galvanizes the viewer into seriously considering the extreme horror of the migrant crisis is commendable. Yet why did Rosi feel it necessary to distract and entertain his audience before unleashing this barrage of atrocity? Did he not trust that the images were ghastly enough on their own, or did he feel his audience needed to be punished for their complacency?
February 14, 2016
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