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Review: Sharp contrasts fuel ‘Fire at Sea’

Tom Long, The Detroit News

A fascinating study in contrasts, “Fire at Sea’ shows how the normal and painfully abnormal exist side by side — the horrific and the serene, the tragic and the mundane, global crisis and daily humdrum. Talk about timely.

Lampedusa is an island off the coast of Italy which is home to a small, wonderfully quaint fishing village. Writer-director Gianfranco Rosi trains his camera on the day-to-day there: a woman making a bed, the local radio DJ taking requests, a family slurping down pasta.

His main subject is Samuele, a young boy who makes his own slingshot and goes hunting (unsuccessfully) for birds at night. He and a friend goof around on a motor scooter, hike through the island’s craggy hills, go rowing in the harbor. Samuele goes along on his father’s fishing boat one day and gets sick. He has an appointment with an eye doctor, does his English homework. He’s a kid.

Ah, but Lampedusa isn’t just some idyllic picture-book place. It’s also where tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, Libya, the Ivory Coast and more first hit land while trying to get by boat from Africa to Europe.

And understand, these people aren’t yachting over for brunch in Venice. They are crammed into and on top of rickety boats by the hundreds, usually going days without food or water. Many drown or simply die on the way over. They float into Italian waters and radio for help. At which point rescue workers set out to find the distressed craft and its even more distressed occupants and bring the (often barely) living back to a camp in Lampedusa, a camp that few locals seem involved with.

Rosi doesn’t use any narration; it’s not needed. The stark difference between Samuele’s innocent life and the lives of the refugees is unrelenting. The pleasant air of the fishing village becomes a lot less pleasant as you notice all the rescue vehicles churning about in the nearby ocean. It’s a constant stream of misery flowing right past a bastion of normalcy.

When Rosi’s camera goes down into the hold of one of the emptied refugee boats, scanning piles of garbage and dead bodies, the extent of that misery is made clear. But meanwhile Samuele is just a wide-eyed boy, pretending to shoot a gun into the air at some imaginary enemy.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.

@toomuchTomLong

‘Fire at Sea’

GRADE: B+

Not rated

Running time: 114 minutes