AFI Fest 2020: Notturno, by David Bax
After the Golden Bear win and the nominations at the Oscars, Césars and the David di Donatello awards, Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, his fifth feature length film, finally secured him a place on the list of today’s most vital documentarians. He spent three years working on his follow-up, Notturno, and the result was well worth the effort. He returns to his mode of depicting indescribable hardship via breathtakingly beautiful photography, even giving us another boy sitting on the bow of a boat (the signature image of Fire at Sea) but furthers it by expanding his scope from one tiny Mediterranean island to large swaths of the Middle East. The people of the region are no less the subject of Notturno for how often they are regarded obliquely by the camera, dwarfed under the overwhelming vastness of the skies or forced to flee to the edges of frames dominated by hookahs or large dinner tables. These are countrysides, alleyways and private homes that most of Rosi’s Western audience are not likely to ever visit but he does justice to those suffering in them by presenting them as beauty paramount.
Notturno is not a travelogue, though. Rosi offers no commentary on the places we’re seeing. After the opening text that gives an overview of where film was shot (Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, Lebanon), there are no location cards or chyrons telling us where we are at any specific time. Some austere storylines develop–hunting trips or the grieving process–but many sequences exist independent of one another, such as the whimsical one of a donkey on a nighttime street corner staring unfazed into the camera as cars whiz to and fro in the very near background.
There’s a sense of humor to that and to some of Rosi’s other images but most such ironic juxtapositions are more disquieting than funny. When two friends share a hookah, for instance, the bubbling of the water pipe is remarkably similar to the sounds of the automatic gunfire somewhere out in the nighttime city. Not only do they sound alike, neither is remarkable enough to halt the conversation.
That’s not the only time we hear unseen guns going off; it’s a constant in some sections. One may even get the impression, early on, that the film is a depiction of life going nobly on amidst violence. Later, though, when we are allowed to sit in on sessions in which children describe the brutalities they’ve witnessed to a counselor or when we watch psychiatric ward patients rehearse a play about their devastated homeland, we understand that Rosi is saying the opposite. Life does not simply go on. Notturno is a vision of an entire region in a permanent state of processing psychological trauma.
But by avoiding miserablism, Rosi achieves the same effect in Notturno as he did in regards to both the African refugees and the European townsfolk in Fire at Sea. He offers them not just sympathy but respect.