Fire At Sea (12)

Curzon Artificial Eye, £15.99

As the only documentary-maker to have taken top prize at both the Berlin and Venice film festivals, Gianfranco Rosi is unarguably Europe's most decorated practitioner of the form. For his last film, Sacro GRA, he spent two years filming the people who live on and around Rome's ring-road, the Grande Raccordo Anulare. The one before that, El Sicario, Room 164, was an interview with a masked killer and torturer employed by a Mexican drug cartel, shot in the hotel room where he carried out much of his “work”.

Loading article content

For Fire At Sea, which won the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival, Rosi embedded himself on the island of Lampedusa, 70 miles from North Africa and the first European landfall for the estimated 400,000 migrants who have made the journey across the Mediterranean. At least 15,000 are thought to have died in the crossing.

Rosi makes no judgements. Instead his camera impassively records various sea rescues, then follows the blank-eyed migrants as they're landed and ushered into buses. We see dead bodies, we see near-dead ones and we watch as Italian aid workers in haz-mat suits search and photograph the arrivals. Oddly, given the subject matter, Rosi takes great pains over the visuals and as a result the film is a procession of hauntingly beautiful images: headlights catching gold-coloured survival blankets, a naval helicopter being dragged out of a strip light-lit hanger against a dark blue sky and a blood red horizon, a Scuba diver picking his way through a silent underwater world with a torch.

Intercutting these scenes are others which follow the island's Italian residents, primarily the feisty Samuele, a 12-year-old boy with a lazy eye and a thing for home-made catapults, and the careworn doctor whose job it is to minister to the sick migrants and examine the dead ones.

There are no answers provided and no political points made, which has troubled some critics. There's no obvious link, either, between Samuele's day-to-day life and the lives of the arriving migrants. They might as well be in different places entirely. But as a sorrowful portrait of what it is to be human, Fire At Sea is pretty close to a work of art.

Electra, My Love (15)

Second Run,

The always excellent Second Run have surpassed themselves with this offering, a newly-restored version of Hungarian director Miklos Jancso's elegiac re-working of the Greek ancient Greek myth of Electra and her brother Orestes. Shot in 1974, the film is daring enough for its themes alone - its presentation of an oppressed society ruled over by a tyrant can't have pleased Hungary's Communist authorities - but when you take into account its structure and form, a series of 12 long and intricately choreographed takes, you realise the extent of Jancso's audacity.

Filmed on the Hungarian steppe, it features troupes of dancers, horsemen, a wandering minstrel, young women clad either in diaphanous gowns or in nothing at all, a peacock (it appears in several scenes) and a set consisting of a half-built complex of buildings in brick and mud. Instead of cutting from scene to scene, Jancso and cinematographer Janos Kende pan slowly across a complicated series of tableaux, mostly following Electra (Mari Tör?csik) as she walks and talks, chastising the usurper Aegisthus (József Madaras), musing on his tyranny and warning of the return of her brother Orestes. He duly obliges, turning up to kill Aegisthus and then, in the film's jarring final scene, flying off with Electra in a bright red helicopter. If you watch only one symbolism-laden 1970s Hungarian film this year, make it this one.

Psychomania (15)

BFI, £19.99

This latest release in the BFI's Flipside imprint will appeal to two constituencies which don't often share space on the same sofa: fans of cult horror films and lovers of that peculiar kind of 1960s architecture you find in suburban British shopping centres. Or used to find: the building in question here, Hepworth Way in Walton-on-Thames, has long since been demolished but it lives on as the backdrop to this quirky story about a biker gang who realise they can cheat death and use their new-found power to wreak havoc.

Directed by Hammer Studios veteran Don Sharp, it stars Nicky Henson as Tom Latham, leader of biker gang The Living Dead. Mary Larkin plays his girlfriend, Abby, while the rest of the leather-clad gang is made up of characters with names like Chopped Meat, Hatchet and Gash. Tom and Abby talk proper, everyone else speaks in flavours of stage Cockney.

But what really distinguishes Psychomania are its surreal touches (a toad features heavily), its set design, its dark, folkloric undercurrents and, above all, its supporting cast - Robert Hardy as a hard-bitten murder detective, the great Beryl Reid as Tom's clairvoyant mother and, in his last film, Hollywood legend George Sanders as the Latham family's sepulchral butler-cum-chauffeur Shadwell, a man who never ages and has more than a whiff of sulphur about him. Sanders was dead by his own hand by the time the film was released in 1973, the suicide note by his naked body stating simply: “Dear world. I am leaving because I am bored … Good luck”. You could say he went out on a high.