Poetry and everyday tragedy intermingle in this portrait of life in the Middle East.



The Italian documentarist Gianfranco Rosi is best known for Fire at Sea which was Oscar nominated in 2017. That film contained some compelling footage related to the plight of immigrants but there was also much which I thought worked less well and that led me to the conclusion that Rosi was being overpraised. Because of that I approached his new piece Notturno without any high expectations - and all the more so because it promised to be in the same style that was adopted both in Fire at Sea and in Rosi's other feature to have had a release here, 2013's Sacro Gra. That style is one notable for two elements that stand out: the absence of any voice-over commentary and the inclusion of scenes that seem to have been specially staged. Notturno does indeed keep to that pattern and has resulted in doubts being expressed more widely than before regarding episodes that look to be contrived for the camera. Nevertheless, and somewhat to my surprise, I found Notturno to be very much the most successful of these three works of his.


Over the years Rosi has become ever more accomplished and the photography here (he regularly shoots the films that he directs) is quite splendid. But what counts most in favour of Notturno is the fact that this time his chosen material is far better suited than before to his methods. He spent three years in the Middle East along the borders of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Kurdistan and his subject is the far-reaching one of what it is like to be a civilian living in a war zone. In a brilliantly handled pre-credit sequence - one notable for its skilled use of sound - a static camera emphasises military might as groups of soldiers march by one after another. What follows sometimes shows soldiers on duty, female personnel included, and we also glimpse prisoners in a yard. But most of the time the focus is on ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives in a militarised world. The absence of a commentary matters not at all because all of these people whatever their specific backgrounds and nationalities are enduring the only life that exists for them.


Children feature heavily including two boys who appear more than once. However, the most heartbreaking sequence is one that shows even younger children who are encouraged by a teacher to make drawings which will help them to overcome the trauma of witnessing horrific acts by expressing them and confronting them in this form (ISIS in particular stands condemned here). Early on in Notturno we have a sequence featuring a woman in mourning taking friends to visit a now empty prison where her son had died: it is so precisely presented with such perfectly composed pictures that it suggests something set up by an artist and that is distracting. Fortunately though, this proves to be the most extreme example and later episodes in which patients in a psychiatric unit rehearse a play that voices their concerns have found a form in which what is scripted exists in a naturalistic context. Ethnic music adds to the atmosphere and, as is arguably hinted at by the title, Notturno often comes across as a mood poem, a work in which the visuals are blessed by a poet's eye. Nevertheless, it is the human tragedy depicted that is the crucial focus here. Bringing together the various elements results in an episodic film, but its qualities count for far more than its limitations.




Featuring  Ali Ali Mohamad, Ali Mowajed, Marwa Monajed, Zeina, Myrna, Mohamad, Mahmoud, Abed El Hay, Zahra, Roukaya & Bilal Ali, Bachir Maroun.


Dir Gianfranco Rosi, Pro Donatella Palermo, Gianfranco Rosi, Serge Lalou, Camille Laemlè, Orwa Nyrabia and Eva-Maria Weerts, Screenplay Gianfranco Rosi, Ph Gianfranco Rosi, Ed Jacopo Quadri with Fabrizio Federico.


21uno Film/Stemal Entertainment/Rai Cinema/Les Films d'iic-Mubi.
100 mins. Italy/France/Germany. 2020. Rel: 5 March 2021. Available on Mubi. No Cert.