The Critical Reception of ‘Fuocoammare’ Abroad
Though Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare had limited success both in terms of national and international gross and admissions, it received global critical acclaim. The reasons for this are probably twofold: on the one hand, it is because of the urgency and the relevance of the issue, that is the refugee and the migration crisis; on the other, this is due the two important international awards obtained by the movie, the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival (2016) and the Academy Award Nomination for Best Documentary Feature (2017).
The film was particularly appreciated by Italian film critics, too. For example, the two most important newspapers in Italy, Il Corriere della sera and La Repubblica, both responded positively to the movie: in an article published in the Corriere, Paolo Mereghetti talks about “a cinema that mainly identifies itself as an instrument of knowledge and not of propaganda, or absolution and condemnation”, while Paolo D’Agostini in La Repubblica notes how Rosi realized “something that tells us, with a totally different point of view, what news programs and chronicles of the emergency have been telling us for years in a partial and distorted way”.
The cultural legitimation brought by the film critic to the general public is probably the most interesting process that is worth underlining, in considering all aspects of the film’s circulation abroad. It is not by chance that, in the trailer re-editing procedure for international audiences, we can find a couple of enthusiastic quotations taken from American reviews as a marketing strategy.
In her review published in the Swiss film magazine FilmExplorer, Maria De Salvatore focuses mostly on the story of the film, observing how “the editing works on a double track: on the one hand, it seems to put human conditions that are seemingly different on the same level; on the other, it highlights the abyss that separates events that seem comparable only on the surface”. Nicola Cargnoni, in the Italian-Swiss magazine Rapporto Confidenziale, states how Rosi’s movie can be considered “a kaleidoscope of emotions that deserves the right resonance in the international and political European fields”. The review published in the German-speaking magazine Film Bulletin by Tereza Fischer notes how the director wanted to depict two different “alien” worlds, “clashing without comment”, paying attention to everyday life, and raising “questions that cannot be answered” by Europe, which remains “overwhelmed, and misery remains”.
Part of the French reviews focus again on the theme and the content of the film. Vincent Thabourey in Positif observes how “Fuocoammare disturbs and moves us” telling a “painful story that involves us all, in a terribly intimate way”. But is not only was it the film’s content that struck French critics. In his review published in the French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles, Jean Baptiste Morain states that “our eyes, accustomed to the images of television, see things differently: without dramatization, without tears, without pathos, the Italian filmmaker simply films the dead, without any voyeurism, with admirable respect”. The integrity and ethics of Rosi’s gaze is also noted by the film critic of Le Monde who underlines how Rosi “turns alone with his camera” but, at the same time, “sculpts images of a telluric splendor (leaded skies, shades of winter colors) that often look towards a fantasy of fiction”. So, the mix between the respect with which Rosi represents a tragedy and the way he proved himself in the creation process of “beautiful” images, to use the words of Télérama’s Frédéric Strauss “illuminates, like a distress beacon, a desert of reactions”.
Sight & Sound puts Fuocoammare in 2nd place in the best documentaries and in 13th place in the best films (fiction plus documentaries) of 2016. In his review, Trevor Johnson underlines how “moral courage and filmic artistry exist side by side in this essential offering from a director gradually earning the right to be thought of as one of the greats of our era”. Even Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian gives five stars to the movie (the maximum rating), observing in his review that Rosi’s film is not just “beautiful, mysterious and moving” and “masterly film-making”, but also connect the documentary to the “neorealist classics”, stating how “Samuele is a descendant of Enzo Staiola as young Bruno in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves”. David Jenkins similarly notes in Little White Lies that “Fire at Sea feels like a distant but crisp echo of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist classic, Bicycle Thieves”. For the first time, the film is assimilated to Italy and not to Europe, especially in its (more or less evident) references to Italian cinema of the past.
Most of the American reviews focus mostly on the filming choices of the director. How noted by Deborah Young in The Hollywood Reporter, “whereas most filmmakers would follow a rescue op from start to finish, Rosi never satisfies the audience’s curiosity in this way” because “he creates drama instead through a careful choice of emotionally resonant details, which convey much more”. On this issue, Richard Brody takes a step forward: as he states in The New Yorker, “Rosi films the migrants empathetically but sentimentally; he depicts helicopters and ships with bombastic grandeur. What’s more, half the movie has nothing to do with migrants – it’s the story of a local boy named Samuele; his father, Nello, a fisherman; his grandmother, Maria; and other residents of the island. Rosi gets close to them without hearing from them; his context-free observation of them can imply anything or nothing”. So, both the categories of documentary and the “cinema del reale” (“cinema of the real”) are questioned by these two reviews.
Many other articles underline all of Rosi’s references to one of greatest documentary American film-maker of all time: Frederick Wiseman. First of all, A.O. Scott in The New York Times writes that “Fire at Sea is impressionistic and intensely absorbing” and that “like one of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries, it compels you to infer a big picture from a series of extended, intimate scenes”. Then, Anna Diamond in The Atlantic confirms that “Rosi’s long, observant takes offer these disparate lives without commentary, evoking the stylistically similar work of the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman” – on the same analogy see also the review in Film Comment.
To conclude on the “Italianness” of the film, even some of the American reviews underline the connections between Rosi’s film and Italian neorealism. In addition to the above mentioned references to De Sica – and in Film Inquiry, where Christopher Connor points out how the character of Samuele “resembles a slightly older Bruno from Bicycle Thieves” – Glenn Kenny from the website dedicated to the famous American film critic Rogerebert.com observes that the film “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”. In this way, to conclude, we can note how Gianfranco Rosi’s film is not just perceived as a European movie, but also as an Italian one, thanks above all to its aesthetical connections with Italian classical cinema.