Fire at Sea

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Fire at Sea Movie Poster Image
Intense material in remarkable, multilayered documentary.
  • NR
  • 2016
  • 114 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Deals with big subjects that will leave viewers talking. Frankly addresses a horrifying situation in which emigrants risk death and many other hardships; also documents the good people who try to help them. Brings up the concept of how this situation may or may not affect others. Can any of us help, or does life simply go on?

Positive Role Models & Representations

Workers who help save emigrants are briefly shown, but the main characters are merely normal folks just trying to get through life.


Disturbing descriptions of hardship, horrors, and death. Images of sick people rescued from boats. Photo of a burn victim. Kids play with slingshots, carve faces in cacti, and shoot at them. Kids pretend to shoot guns.


In English subtitles, a use of "f--k." Also "piss."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Brief images of cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Fire at Sea is an intense Italian documentary (with English subtitles) set on the island of Lampedusa, which is halfway between African and Italy and therefore a regular stopping point for Africans emigrating to Europe. The emigrants risk death and many other hardships during their journey. The movie describes many of these, including people burning from diesel fuel, and shows many sick people. (A photo of a burn victim is shown.) Kids build slingshots and shoot at targets shaped like human faces; they also play "guns" and pretend to shoot things. Language is minimal, but "f--k" is used once, as is "piss" (both in subtitles). The movie is a 2017 Best Documentary Oscar nominee, and for teens and up, it's a powerful film that will inspire deep thought and discussion.

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What's the story?

A 2017 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary, FIRE AT SEA takes place on Lampedusa, an island situated halfway between Africa and Italy that's a regular stopping point for Africans emigrating to Europe. The residents of the island regularly see unbelievable horrors in the emigrants who arrive there, from starvation and dehydration all the way to bizarre, horrifying fuel burns. The movie also tells the story of a Lampedusian boy named Samuele who loves making and firing slingshots,and who eventually needs to wear a corrective eyepatch. Samuele and the other residents of Lampedusa simply go about their daily business, their lives generally untouched by the nearby tragedies.

Is it any good?

This fascinating, remarkable film has an innate artistry not usually associated with many documentaries; it imparts information about a situation but also has a curiosity about life. Fire at Sea was submitted to the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film as well as for Best Documentary (it was nominated for the latter).

The details of the emigrants' stories are indeed horrifying, and most hand-wringing documentaries might simply have stopped there. But director Gianfranco Rosi isn't interested in simply asking "isn't all this terrible?" Instead, he challenges us with the seemingly normal, everyday parts of the story. Rosi shoots these sequences with a Frederick Wiseman-like observation, creating stories and seeming not to intrude on their delicate rhythms. The end result is transporting but also moving; it's a wake-up call, asking us to think about how much attention we really pay to what's around us, and -- perhaps more importantly -- what to do about it?

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Fire at Sea depicts the violence and danger of the migrants' journey. How much is described, and how much is shown? What's the overall impact?

  • How can people make a difference in the world? What are some things you can do near you that could have a positive impact on your community and those in it who might be struggling?

  • Is the doctor, who takes care of migrants as well as locals, a role model?

  • What point do you think the movie is trying to make? Do documentaries need to be objective? Why or why not?

Movie details

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