‘Notturno’ Review: ‘Fire at Sea’ Director Delivers a Cinematic Look at Life in the Middle East

At one lyrical interval in Gianfranco Rosi’s “Notturno,” a fisherman paddles his small boat down a river lit by the rising sun. Something seems off: the sky stays dark too long, and the distant star burns too brightly.  Once the discharge of automatic weapons becomes more prominent in the sound mix, however, we realize that such explosive light is no sun at all — and that for the figures given the spotlight in Rosi’s sober and hypnotic portrait of daily life in the war-torn Levant, violence is just another natural, unremarkable part of the landscape.

That sequence, mind you, is something of an outlier in this elliptical doc, which the director and cinematographer shot over the course of three years on the borders between Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon. Despite the sound of gunfire off in the distance, “Notturno” is less a film about life during wartime than the life that subsequently follows it, as those damaged by the violence try to move forward.

As he did with his previous prizewinners “Sacro GRA” and “Fire at Sea,” Rosi constructs this film as a series of handsomely shot vignettes that forgo interviews, voiceover, or context cues in order let the striking, fixed-camera compositions do much of the talking. Here, he pushes that aesthetic even further than before, creating an impressionistic tableau-film that feels in places like a photojournalistic inquiry breathed to somber life. But Rosi’s tight formal control — especially when it comes to sound design — never lets you forget that this is cinema through and through.

The filmmaker explains the game with another early vignette, when he focuses his static camera on a donkey standing in the middle of a street and then gradually fades down the ambient city sounds. For what then follows, Rosi treats the audio design as if it was recorded through a selective focus mic, isolating certain elements while drowning out the rest in a sea of white noise. In that sense, “Notturno” uses quietness as a visual tool — making the audience feel like they’re saddled with noise-cancelling headphones in order to enhance the cinematography’s hypnotic pull.

Without a singular narrative through-line, the film explores its thematic concerns through its various vignettes, allowing them to bounce off one another to create new meaning.  We witness a group grieving Kurdish women as they explore the now-empty prison where their sons and husbands were tortured and killed; we see a room full of refugee children recounting the fall of Raqqa in an art therapy class; and we see a teenage boy, the eldest of six, take odd jobs to support to his mother and young siblings.  The film never addresses the whereabouts of his father, nor does it have to. The wailing widows have already said it all.

Tracing a path of furtive – if not impossible – recovery, “Notturno” returns to certain subjects more than once. A particularly memorable thread finds patients at psychiatric hospital asked to put on a play, re-enacting the battles between ISIS, Syrian rebels, and international forces. Rhyming, in a way, with the scene where the young Syrian children attempt to process their recent traumas through visual art – at one gut-punching point, a boy named Fawaz points towards a primitive drawing and notes to the counselor, “This is when ISIS started exterminating us” – the inmates’ production allows the film to explore the violence that has shaped and snuffed out so many millions of lives in the region without ever having to show it directly. In fact, the only time the ISIS flag ever appears onscreen is in a black-and-white archival video that plays behind the ersatz thespians as they rehearse their show.

The theater subplot also presents the otherwise non-intrusive filmmaker the chance to inveigh against those unseen forces in his own small way. With what is almost certainly the only laugh line of the film (and one of the few lines of dialogue in general), a rehearsing patient practices a long monologue calling the devout to martyrdom. Once the call to arms concludes, an overseeing doctor turns the patient, and says, in deadpan, “That was your best performance yet.”

Well, those forces are almost unseen. In the film’s sole instance of (potentially) questionable ethics, Rosi does fix his camera on what we presume to be captured Islamic State soldiers at a vignette shot inside and outside a prison. Lasting a scant few minutes of screen-time and featuring only four shots, the sequence highlights both the skill that has made the Italian filmmaker one of contemporary cinema’s most decorated documentarians, while simultaneously pushing up against the limits of his highly aestheticized style.

Rossi keeps it simple: In four shots, we move from the outside of the prison to the inside of the cell, with each shot displaying exacting compositions that capture bodies in motion in thrilling ways. In short, the sequence presents us with an undeniably enjoyable visual spectacle, but one provided to us by prisoners whose volitions and consent we cannot know. While the filmmaker’s virtuosic eye can spot grandeur in the smallest moments – there’s a shot of two soldiers drinking tea that looks like a lost Rembrandt, for crying out loud – it appears blind to such an ethical red flag.

Or maybe it’s nothing at all — and that itself is a testament to the film, which only furthers Rosi’s project to final new visual codes for issues where it seems like there’s nothing else to say. Whether the film crossed a line or not, who knows? Whether “Notturno” challenges the mind and rewards the eye, on the other hand, is unambiguous. The film’s qualities are clear as day.

Grade: A-

“Notturno” premiered in competition at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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