What to watch at LFF: Notturno, a vast Middle Eastern canvas from one of the world’s great documentary-makers

The new film from veteran documentarist Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea) found him journeying to the Middle East to live among border communities in Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon. Adrian Wootton finds magic in the master’s patient, observational methods.

25 September 2020

By Adrian Wootton

Notturno (2020)
London Film Festival 2020

Led Zeppelin’s iconic 1975 rock song ‘Kashmir’ may be about a mythical version of the disputed region of the Indian subcontinent, but when its lyric describes being “a traveller of both time and space to be where I have been” it does – at least in part – appropriately encapsulate the nomadic life and extraordinary work of Italian documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi.

Over the course of 25 years, Rossi’s output has been relatively modest in volume (6 feature-length films plus shorts) but hugely significant in terms of originality and influence. This dichotomy is in large part due to the time Rosi takes to travel to first find and then submerge himself in the world – the community, locale and environment – of his subject(s). 

He may nominally live in Rome, but as Rosi himself says he doesn’t live permanently anywhere. From his first feature, Boatman (1993), shot in India over nearly 5 years as he filmed his main protagonist plying his trade up and down the river Ganges, Rosi has developed a painstaking way of working that depends on initial immersion and a research period where he seeks out people who will populate his narrative. He also depends on, in his word, “unpredictability” to discover the stories that only then he will consider filming, sometimes months or years later. 

This was how he made Below Sea Level in 2008 about the inhabitants of Slab City USA, how he captured the various lives of dwellers around the Rome ring road in his Venice Golden Lion winner Sacro Gra in 2013, and how he depicted the Lampedusa island community, and the refugee migrants washing up on their shores, in his Berlin Golden Bear winner Fire at Sea (2016).

Now Rosi has done it again with Notturno, perhaps his most ambitious and challenging film to date. Partly inspired by wanting to track back to where the refugees arriving on Lampedusa in Fire at Sea originated from, Notturno eventually became a much larger canvas than his previous work. 

Three years in production, Rosi’s film involved the filmmaker tracing and retracing his steps over the borders of the Middle East, between Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon, observing and embedding himself in the lives and different worlds of the diverse inhabitants of these disparate locales, which are separated by geography, race, political regimes and religion. 

Through patiently observing sometimes casual encounters and chance “unpredictable events”, and by riding out risks including would-be kidnap attempts, he captures his cast and puts their stories on film. Realised sometimes in a single vignette, these stories are of individuals – hunters working by the light of oil fires, fishermen, teachers, traumatised schoolchildren, family groups, soldiers, military prisoners, and hospital patients acting out a play – living lives of some hope, some sadness and much loss. 

Thus Rosi constructs a rich, impressionistic cinematic tapestry. There’s no didactic messaging here, or judgemental reportage. Instead, Notturno is an evocation, an empathetic portrait that manages to connect very different lives and circumstances through their human experiences in the face of conflict; setting them within their urban and rural landscapes in daylight, dusk and darkness, rendered in limpid beautiful images. 

This is not a war film, but the realities, the impact and echoes of war are reflected throughout. They provide an unmistakable pulse that underpins and connects everything Rosi depicts. Because of this, Notturno has the feel of a mesmerising tone poem (the link between its title and the music of Chopin’s Nocturne is a reference Rosi acknowledges) full of haunting and poignant, multi-layered images, all shot by Rosi himself as his own director of photography. 

To make the musical analogy even more explicit, Rosi regards the various narratives as symphonic ‘notes’ in the structure, to be arranged and rearranged in the edit to find the internal rhythm that would move the film forward. Indeed the editing, done under lockdown, also had a guiding principle: no matter how brief an appearance, every one of his discovered characters were retained as a sort of film family to feature in the final version of the film. 

This is another reason why Notturno, despite ranging over a vast geographic area and showing lives that are very dissimilar to each other, has a unity and coherence. The result is a sympathetic, aesthetically beautiful yet unflinching odyssey that’s clearly recognisable as the distinctive vision of Rosi. It marks a major entry in the canon not only of Italy’s greatest documentarist but one of the world’s great filmmakers .

  • With thanks to Carla Cattani, Film Italia and Gianfranco Rosi