Written and directed by Gianfranco Rosi.
Gianfranco Rosi’s new documentary is an immersive portrait of those trying to survive in the war-torn Middle East.
Gianfranco Rosi’s (Fire at Sea) new documentary affirms both the strengths and weaknesses of his quasi-observational filmmaking style, delivering a deeply-felt yet flawed collage of life lived on the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon.
Without much of a guiding “narrative” to speak of beyond a brief opening title card and occasional chatter from Rosi’s subjects, Notturno is largely focused on constructing meaning through loaded, often harrowing and mostly wordless imagery.
It’s an approach which sometimes proves ponderous, yet is at the same time effective in creating an immersive, slice-of-life feel. Rosi’s film opens with an incredible shot of soldiers jogging in a circuit, with a new wave of men emerging from the left-hand side of the screen periodically. Moments later, we see a woman wailing in the jail cell where her son was tortured and killed.
These scenes set a powerful tone from the outset, while establishing that Rosi is keen to leap from one scenario to another with no more specific link than the sheer human struggle of those attempting to survive in the fraught Middle East.
In one aside, Rosi is granted access inside a psychiatric ward, where patients are acting out a play to make sense of their feelings. Elsewhere a young boy cleans a rifle before heading out into the airy wilderness to hunt food for his many siblings. An all-female squad of soldiers sweep a series of buildings as a training exercise. In prison, dozens of men are crammed into a single cell like battery farmed chickens.
Each of these scenes proves rousing in their own way, though by far the most evocative segment on offer is a devastating mid-film sequence in which Yazidi children who have witnessed ISIS’ genocide first-hand draw what they have seen and talk it through with a therapist.
The images and spoken tales of internment, torture, and death are obviously upsetting, with the added heartbreak of such young souls shouldering the weight of so much pain and fear. Seeing all the drawings stuck to the wall, where we can discern scrawled imagery of spectral ISIS death merchants, severed limbs, impending decapitations, and the burning of bodies, renders the imagined real in a uniquely nauseating way.
Another especially heart-rending sequence sees a mother listen to the increasingly urgent, desperate phone messages from her kidnapped daughter, who begs her to pay a ransom to her captors. It’s a short scene, but one thoroughly awash in agony, especially with the particulars of its outcome unknown – though audiences may well make their own unfortunate deductions.
As starkly effective as so many of the images are, though, it’s difficult to let go of the fact that large swaths of the film feel excessively staged, with contrived camera placement drawing attention to its own artifice, suggesting that many of the segments are as much constructed as they are captured.
If you can let that nagging feeling go, however, this is still a deeply visceral portrait of life in one of Earth’s most hellish regions. It’s easy to appreciate how some might see its lingering depictions of grief as exploitative, but it also draws distinct attention to the horrors these people have lived through.
Even in its more plodding moments – of which there are many, to be fair – Notturno is beautifully filmed by Rosi, who serves as his own cinematographer. His sharp eye for framing and striking imagery is clear in every moment, with the end result as gorgeous and considered as any narrative feature.
All in all there’s a fair argument to be made that the assortment of moving photographs might’ve felt more directly impactful as a concise short, because some of the more laboured passages do detract somewhat from the overall emotional effect. Also, the more obviously staged sequences will have you thinking far more about the documentary form itself than Rosi likely intended.
A grim yet beautiful tableau, if perhaps too spare in presentation – and too obviously arranged for its filmmaker’s benefit – to fully satisfy.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.