Truth and Movies

Notturno

Review by Trevor Johnston

Directed by

Gianfranco Rosi

Starring

Anticipation.

Rosi’s track record shows an exceptional facility for finding within observational locality a wider thematic resonance.

Enjoyment.

Painful realities juxtapose with painterly expressiveness to disconcerting effect.

In Retrospect.

It’s about the steps towards healing, challenging Western viewers to allow images of beauty and normalcy to play a part in that journey.

This captivating docu-reverie from Gianfranco Rosi reveals the aftereffects of war on people in the Middle East.

A shaft of light from a window in a former prison somewhere in the Middle East cuts a dynamic diagonal along an adjoining wall, where a mother is doubled over in grief for the son who lost his life there. It’s an image of such composed poise it could be from a Caravaggio canvas.

Yet just as we’re pondering whether such visual beauty has a place in this arena of pain, we cut to a close-up where the woman views photos of her boy, his battered face and the noose around his neck suggesting they were taken just after his murder. The transition from aesthetic allure to brutal reality does not make for comfortable viewing: is the close-up on those grisly snaps intrusive and possibly exploitative?

Director Gianfranco Rosi knows what he’s doing. He wants us to ask that question, because his films thrive on productive juxtaposition. His previous, Oscar-nominated film Fire at Sea, for instance, made the very point that life went on blithely as normal for the islanders of Lampedusa while tragedy unfolded off-shore in the Mediterranean migrant crisis, while 2013’s captivating Sacro GRA, suggested how socially diverse near-neighbours in and around Rome’s ring road might as well exist in separate universes.

Captured over three years in border regions of Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon, this new film – titled after the Italian for night – offers no captions to tell us exactly where we are at each moment, yet its juxtaposition of painterly beauty and horrifying reality is a constant, leaving us to figure out its ultimate significance.

What Rosi loses here is the telling specificity of his earlier work, and there’s certainly a danger his fresco of the war-torn Middle East reduces a complex situation to an over-simplified omnishambles. That said, his film’s meditative pacing and mosaic structure turn it into a sort of woozy docu-reverie, which proves seductively immersive, moving between magic-hour landscapes with the flames of war in the distance, to startlingly framed vignettes of military activity, and a recurring focus on how people try to move beyond their past sufferings.

Hence, there’s harrowing footage of children explaining how their drawings depict the torture and murder perpetrated by ISIS forces on their Yazidi community, and we see patients at a psychiatric hospital in rehearsal for a theatrical performance confronting the destruction of their lives. The drawings are crude yet elemental, the play rudimentary yet sincere, and the process they represent offers a glimmer of hope in the darkness. Does Rosi see his film, or indeed filmmaking per se, as an equivalent aesthetic response to dauntingly awful history?

In which case, Rosi’s rapturous images then have their place, while there’s also an inference of affirmative renewal in his calmly contrasting sequences of a family simply getting on with the everyday, supported by their eldest son earning a few dollars by fetching and carrying for passing duck hunters. In the lad’s watchful gaze, eyes to the sky, Rosi presents a characteristically non-obvious image of resilience to cap this ruminative example of his latest refinement of the documentary form.

Published 4 Mar 2021

Tags: Gianfranco Rosi Notturno

Anticipation.

Rosi’s track record shows an exceptional facility for finding within observational locality a wider thematic resonance.

Enjoyment.

Painful realities juxtapose with painterly expressiveness to disconcerting effect.

In Retrospect.

It’s about the steps towards healing, challenging Western viewers to allow images of beauty and normalcy to play a part in that journey.

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How cinema is rewriting the Middle East narrative

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Filmmakers from across the region are challenging perceptions through intimate, personal storytelling.

Fire at Sea

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Europe’s migrant crisis is brought into focus in this quietly thought-provoking documentary.

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