2021, NR, 100 min. Directed by Gianfranco Rosi.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 29, 2021
Borders are where we decide they are. Countries are not absolutes. Geopolitics depends on constructs. When Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea) opens his new documentary by stating that it was filmed it along the borders of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Kurdistan, this is a loaded statement. Kurdistan is not a nation, at least not in the way that most other countries would define one, or in a way that gets you a seat at the United Nations.
Yet Rosi isn't interested in details – at least, not in the minutiae of geopolitics, or the chronology of cause and effect in the region. Notturno translates as nocturne, a suitable name for a documentary that feels shrouded in spiritual darkness and, like the musical movement, depends more on emotive lyricism than overt didacticism.
The scale of the endeavor is, in itself, extraordinary. Rosi builds vignettes around families, individuals, couples, all of whom reveal themselves by their actions rather than their words. The reason for his vast geographic coverage is the topic: life in the region post-2017, as the war bands of transnational terror group Daesh (better known in the West as ISIS or ISIL) were being pushed out of the areas it had occupied. What they left behind were militarized regions that the residents had to rebuild, just as they tried to reconstruct the shards of broken lives.
Rosi eschews a conventional narrative for observation through rigorously composed sequences, the camera set in place and left to catch whatever he purposefully sets in front of it. Some moments feel less like footage and more like testimony, such as one young, unnamed child in some institution – a therapy session, an orphanage, a refugee center, it's left unclear – reciting memories of being captured by ISIL. It's an unfurling torrent of horrors that have clearly left emotional scars that will never heal, and are expressed through a stutter that only increases as the stress of recounting the nightmare amplifies. Rosi leaves the camera static, letting the testimony come without comment, then juxtaposing what is heard with another of his long, locked-off takes, this time of ISIL fighters in orange jumpsuits, milling around a prison yard. The emotional intent is clear, and stunningly effective at that moment. Notturno is almost less edited than typeset, a series of still-life scenes with added motion.
The overall effect is like picking up a copy of National Geographic, turning to a long and ambitious photo essay, and not reading the captions. It also shows the limits of what Rosi can achieve. Just as it's functionally impossible to delineate the beginning of the war with ISIL from the homegrown and colonial conflicts that plagued all four nations since their founding, so trying to create a complete a coherent narrative from the moments he has assembled seems like an obtuse task. What exactly does a teen picking up odd jobs on the corner of a hunting swamp have to do with hospital patients with PTSD putting on a play? Who are the women soldiers to whom he occasionally returns? Rosi seeks to give glimpses of insight, to find emotional truths in the mother keening in the prison cell where her son died, and the courting couple who comment on the imminent rain but ignore the distant sound of machine gun fire. To fill in the contextual gaps would damage those truths, but to leave them inevitably will leave the audience questioning what's outside of his frame.
Available as a virtual cinema release now, and on Hulu and VOD starting Jan. 29.