The film won the Golden Bear, which is the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was the official submission from Italy to the 89th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It didn’t make the cut in that category, but it did get the nomination for Best Documentary Feature. It was filmed on the island of Lampedusa, which is in the Mediterranean Sea between the larger island of Sicily and the African country of Libya. The subject of the film involves hundreds and hundreds of African immigrants fleeing Libya to take refuge some place in Italy or possibly Europe.
The problem is that this subject isn’t really explored. It’s depicted in that it’s shown but director Gianfranco Rosi has no narration or interviews. His technique is more of a fly-on-the-wall, which is fine, but it’s apparent that Rosi leans more one-way than he does the other. It’s unfortunate that the other is in fact his own main subject. Instead of leaning more on the African immigrants, we get a whole lot about a random, Italian boy who spends most of his time crafting a tiny slingshot despite having a lazy eye.
There’s so much of this Italian or possibly Sicilian boy named Samuele that the movie loses sight of the more powerful story, that of the African immigrants. Presumably, Rosi is trying to do a juxtaposition or a contrast to the banality of Samuele and his family’s lives with that of the horror of the lives of the African immigrants. It’s a juxtaposition and a contrast that’s interesting in the first few minutes but it loses its impact after two hours and Rosi hasn’t dug any deeper.
It’s particularly egregious when a definite imbalance starts to become apparent. For example, much is learned about Samuele or at least so much time is spent with him. Yet, that time doesn’t add up to anything. Literally, Rosi sets the camera and locks it on a medium shot of Samuele for about five minutes or so. The whole time is just us watching Samuele slurp spaghetti. It’s boring and it goes nowhere.
In the scene, there’s talk of Samuele learning to be a better sailor. There are other scenes learning about sailing and his family of fishermen. If Samuele becoming a sailor or a fisherman were a narrative arc in this film, it would be fine, but Rosi doesn’t even give us that. The life of Samuele goes nowhere and ultimately means nothing, not in this movie nor in the grand scheme.
If Rosi just wanted to follow this boy just to get a glimpse of life on Lampedusa, that’s fine. Doing the story of these African immigrants at the same time pulls focus, needed focus. Because Samuele’s story continued needlessly, resentment started to build. In fact, as it went on, I began to care less and less about Samuele.
Voice is given to the African immigrants, but we never learn any of their names. There’s a brilliant moment when one unnamed immigrant sings the horror of what happened in escaping the war zones of Nigeria and the ISIS terrorism in Libya, but Rosi never follows it up. We never see that particular singing immigrant again. We go back to Samuele time and again. Why not that singing immigrant?
I appreciate that Rosi is showing us the process of how these Africans pile on a boat and sail tortuously or are adrift at sea for weeks before being rescued by Italian coast guard. It gives notice to the death and shines on a light on it. We see the tons of black bodies and tearful black faces, but they remain mostly silent.
Rosi barely attempts to give them voice and allow them to speak and share who they are. Their silence, due to the filmmaker’s part, is frustrating and offensive. It’s a deficiency on Rosi’s behalf.
Screening in Rehoboth Beach at Cineam Art Theater.
Available on DVD in March 2017.