Gianfranco Rosi hass been making documentaries for years, and with the release of Unsentimental Journeys: The Films of Gianfranco Rosi by Kino Lorber, you can catch up with some of his best work.
Boatman (1993) is Rosi’s NYU film school thesis project. Shot in black and white on a 16 mm camera over a period of several years, the film documents life on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi (Benares), India. Even in this early film, Rosi’s basic approach to filmmaking is evident—respect the people whose lives you are documenting, honor their point of view as much as possible, and find the beauty in the most ordinary locations and functions of life. Much of what Rosi documents in this film relate to rituals for the dead, whose bodies are cremated or simply deposited in the river whole, and the tourists who comes to observe these rituals. Alongside these activities, people swim, bathe, and wash their clothes in the river. Many voices are heard in Boatman, including that of one recurring character: Gopal Maji, the boatman of the title, who enlivens the film with his comments on the river, the rituals, and the tourists.
Below Sea Level (2008) was shot in Slab City, a makeshift community of sorts in California’s Sonoran Desert. Constructed on the concrete slabs of an abandoned Marine base, Slab City is home to thousands of RV-dwellers during the winter months and a smaller number of residents who live there year round. Rosi focuses on a few members of latter group, most of whom seem estranged from “normal” society by accident, intention, or both. Some appear mentally unbalanced, others simply poor, and in either case it’s very handy for them that it costs nothing to park your vehicle on a slab. Of course, you must be prepared to survive without some of the common amenities of civilization, like running water, sewage service, power lines, and a police department. Apart from a few night shots, Below Sea Level mostly lacks the visual beauty of Rosi’s other films, but that may have been a directorial choice, as it allows Rosi to avoid romanticizing an environment characterized by poverty, concrete, and rusted vehicles.
Sacro GRA (2013) was shot on and around the GRA (“Grande Raccordo Anulare” or “Great Ring Road”) that encircles Rome; it is the largest urban motorway in Italy. Sacro GRA was a surprise winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, becoming the first documentary ever to win that award. In this film, Rosi splices together, without explanation, little slices of life, from EMTs bringing a patient to hospital to two transvestites who live in a camper to a man who rents out his aristocratic home for anything from film shoots to tourists seeking a bed and breakfast. While some of the individuals featured may strike you as eccentric, that’s your interpretation, not Rosi’s, because he never judges the people he films. To provide some context for these intimate portraits, the road is sometimes viewed from within a moving vehicle or from above, and one location is shown in 360 degrees by a steadily panning camera. No matter what Rosi puts on screen in this film, it’s always beautifully framed and shot with an eye for color.
Fire at Sea (2016) has the most obvious “hook” of any of Rosi’s documentaries, as it documents the arrival of immigrants, many from Africa or the Middle East, on the small Italian island of Lampedusa. Title cards set the context: Lampedusa has a surface area of 20 sq km (less than 8 sq mi), is 70 miles from the African coastline, and has received about 40,000 immigrants hoping to reach the mainland of Europe in the past 20 years; of those 40,000, about 15,000 have died. Yet Fire at Sea is not a single-minded issues documentary, as is evident by the amount of time it spends following a young boy named Samuele, who prefers playing with his slingshot to attending school. Rosi celebrates the harsh beauty of the island in many long shots, as well as the humanity and patience of the islanders who do their best to rescue and care for the migrants while also carrying on with their daily lives.
Unsentimental Journeys: The Films of Gianfranco Rosi is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the discs include video interviews with Rosi (5 min.) and Lampedusa hospital director Pietro Bartolo (30 min.) and a Q&A with Rosi from the New York Film Festival (23 min.); an illustrated booklet including an essay by Nicolas Rapold, editor-in- chief of Film Comment, is also included with the set.