Notturno is a lyrical evocation of Middle Eastern exodus

Nonfiction master Gianfranco Rosi turns from Mediterranean immigration to the maelstrom of the Middle East with this stunningly composed mosaic of darkness and displacement.

Ali in Notturno (2020)

Notturno is streaming on Mubi from 5 March.

Filmed over three years, according to its opening text, Gianfranco Rosi’s latest nonfiction film is a companion piece to his 2016 Berlin prizewinner Fire at Sea. Where that movie focused on how the inhabitants of Lampedusa responded to the massive influx of migrants from across the Mediterranean, the new film was shot in Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon, with those who have stayed (though, of course, many – perhaps most – are in fact displaced).

As that preface also reminds us, the lines which carved up the countries of the Middle East were mapped by colonial powers to suit their own purposes, and much of the region’s cycles of repression and violence can be traced back to those demarcations.

Although he shoots on the frontlines, at military outposts and at natural borders like rivers and port cities, Rosi doesn’t identify them; we may or may not pick out occasional telltale insignia, but the title Notturno (nocturne) evokes something indistinct, crepuscular, and hurting. He doesn’t offer analysis or explication, but renders a potent series of sketches of lives and places torn asunder by war.

It is a compliment, not a complaint, to suggest that Rosi the director/producer has given free rein to Rosi the cinematographer here. Bleak, but also frequently piercingly beautiful, Notturno has more striking imagery than many a blockbuster. Horses charge along a deserted midnight street… Ferries bearing cars and buses bump across chaotic river crossings… A young man shelters from a tempest under a bending tree… A hunter paddles through twilight marshes as burning oil-fields flare on the far horizon.

In the film’s brilliant opening salvo, a cohort of troops huffs along the diagonal from screen left to right in the pre-dawn murk, followed by another, and another, and another, each unit a violent encroachment chopping across the frame. In the first of multiple pungent juxtapositions, the sequence is immediately mirrored and answered by another in which grieving widows and mothers drift through an abandoned fort, the prison from which loved ones failed to emerge. An old woman stands with her back against the wall, hands clawing at bullet-holes, as she keens for her lost son.

A long way from cinema vérité, Rosi’s overtly poetic and somewhat performative style is closer to neorealism, an aesthetic that was itself forged in the ashes of war. His subjects are real, but the shots are composed and sequences unfold with the seamless, invisible editing of narrative fiction. When a poacher digs his canoe out from its hiding place in the reeds, Rosi already knows the location of the vessel and where best to place his camera.

If the collective imagery of the Syrian civil war has predominantly been through graphic mobile phone reportage, Notturno insists on the oblique but expressive cinematic power of mise-en-scène to convey its devastating after-effects.

The palette is, indeed, dark – rain clouds, thunderstorms, floods, but not much sunlight, not much colour. The soundtrack is equally austere: no music before the end credits, no commentary, scant dialogue even, with a couple of notable exceptions.

In one recurring thread, we watch the patients in a psychiatric ward rehearse a polemical state-of-the-nation play under the direction of their doctor (sample dialogue: “I expected a spring of roses and peace, instead we got a spring of war…”). The staging of these rehearsals is deliberately and appropriately Brechtian, with the camera emphasising the proscenium, and the anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian sentiments expressed in the play are hammered home by archival footage of statues being toppled and buildings razed, which is as close as Rosi gets to showing violent conflict, even if the clatter of distant gunfire echoes through the movie like a subconscious refrain.

Notturno (2020)

In another powerful extended sequence, traumatised children share drawings and memories of their life under Islamic State; crude stick figures with severed arms and legs and necks… bright red ink spurting across the paper. The anguish is incontestable, and positioned at the film’s very heart.

Among these war children is Ali, a teenager who is the only figure in the film who might qualify as a protagonist, and virtually the only character whose name we learn. We see his home life – half a dozen children and women sleeping side by side on the floor in their single, sparsely furnished living room. He rises before dawn as the hunters drive out to the fields. If one of them stops, he can earn a few dollars by retrieving the dead birds from where they fall.

If this memorable mosaic could be distilled into just one image, it would be the closeup of Ali’s hooded, pale face, not quite fully formed, ostensibly impassive but broody, his eyes darting side to side, scanning the dark horizon for a glimmer of light.

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