Notturno: Beauty and horror in the conflict zone

Review: Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary depicts a world defined by fear and extremism

Nobody with a sense for contemplative cinema will be left unsatisfied by Notturno

Film Title: Notturno

Director: Gianfranco Rosi


Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 100 min

Fri, Mar 5, 2021, 05:00


“I work on my own and that allows me a lot of time to wait for the right moment,” Gianfranco Rosi told this writer in 2016. “It’s about transforming reality. I hate it when people say ‘the camera becomes invisible’. That never happens.”

That is a fair explanation of the Italian documentarian’s singular technique. Some purists may also view the answer as an admission of guilt. Nobody could mistake Rosi’s celebrated Fire at Sea, winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, as a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of the purest hue. The camera waits for the participants. It renders misery in elegantly composed frames. If aestheticisation is a crime then the authorities should, at the very least, treat him as a person of interest.

Rosi’s latest film, shortlisted for the best documentary Oscar, is another captivating transformation of reality (his words, not mine). The director’s subject is life on the warzones that spread across the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon. The post-imperial context is laid down in opening titles that remind us how, following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, largely arbitrary frontiers were laid down across the Middle East.

At the time Notturno was shot, however, the threat comes from various incarnations of Islamic State. A woman listens to voice messages from a daughter captured by that organisation. Female divisions of the Kurdish Peshmerga patrol volatile sections of their home country. In a particularly striking scene, school-age children draw picture of the horrors visited upon their families.

Little of the context is explicitly laid before the viewer. One might reasonably object that, for a full appreciation of the material, you will need to consult a second source. But the impression of a world defined by fear and extremism is established early on with soldiers stomping in formation and a widow grieving within an abandoned prison cell. The succeeding scenes are selected to flesh out this continuing hell.

They are also selected for their beauty. It seems unlikely the shot of exercising prisoners – later returning to curl up in a vast darkened room – would have made it in were it not for the striking redness of their uniforms. Throw in some Philip Glass and you could be watching a moment from one of Godfrey Reggio’s contemplative epics. Equally as striking, though in quieter fashion, are the scenes in which a lone fisherman paddles his canoe through reeds while a fiery glow on the horizon warns of adjacent catastrophe.

Ordinary life going on in the midst of chaos? Well, maybe. But the majesty of Rosi’s own camerawork – slow movements across exteriors, static tripods indoors  – argues for something more transcendent than the ugly chaos we get from most war-torn verité. There is symbolic value to the cars passing across flooded roads. There is also a compelling weirdness.

Rossi does, however, allow in a few less ambiguous interrogations of the border condition. We meet a group of psychiatric patients staging a political drama about the advance of Islamic State on their territory. The bald complaints about reactionary oppression stand out starkly in a film that, for the most part, speaks in hints and riddles. The other notable exceptions are the sequences set among the schoolchildren. Their horrifying drawings of torn limbs and spouting wounds leave us in no doubt as to the bloody foundations of the current confusion.

Nobody with a sense for contemplative cinema will be left unsatisfied by Notturno. Over an economic running time, Rosi builds a picture of societies set on edge by history and fanaticism. There is, however, a conflict at the film’s heart. He wisely makes no effort to glamorise violence. Indeed, we barely see a shot fired. But the shaky peace is undeniably and variously attractive. Make of that what you will.

Streams on MUBI from March 5th