Feted Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno was shot over three years along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, the opening credits inform us. This is about the only direct piece of information in a 100-minute documentary that takes an elliptical view of a region devastated by war and the depravity of the Islamic State.
The Mubi release has precisely timed, ravishingly shot vignettes that blur the line between scripted fiction and observational documentary. Rosi, who has also shot the film, lines up a series of movements which, like a musical composition, glide between action and stillness.
Wide-angled shots of the landscape, often pockmarked with the effects of military conflict and occupation, often give way to characters and vehicles moving horizontally and vertically across the screen. The neat grammar of the shot taking and editing pattern imposes an eerie sense of anticipation on the narrative – the calm between storms that are sure to come.
On deserted streets, men ride horses and boys zip around on bikes. The seemingly normal act of hunting for birds is as tense as the guard duty outside an army camp, where sentinels scan the horizon.
Mirroring images abound. At a psychiatric hospital, patients rehearse for a play on the region’s experiences with ceaseless conflict. At a prison, Rosi films from a distance as Islamic State prisoners, dressed in fire engine-red jumpsuits, are released into the yard for their daily walk.
Batches of soldiers begin the day with field exercises, emerging one by one as though from the barrel of a gun. Soon after, grieving mothers slowly navigate their way through a former prison where their sons have died horrible deaths.
In this land of unfathomable loss and fragile normalcy, memories of recent conflicts, especially the debilitating war in Syria, are never far away. Rosi gets mothers and children to pick on their still-fresh wounds, resulting in some of the most uncomfortable scenes in the documentary.
Pain is relived in the cause of cinema – a questionable decision, given the vagueness of the setting and the plethora of unnamed characters. Three Arab nations and one autonomous territory, each with overlapping but also dissimilar histories, are thrown into the same cauldron of suffering.
When context is provided, it makes for disquieting viewing. A boy relates to a counsellor the atrocities committed by the Islamic State on the Yazidis, which include unimaginable acts of violence against children. Another boy begins to stammer as he remembers and recounts. The camera rolls on, all the way until his final stutter.
Rosi’s previous credits include Fire at Sea, the award-winning documentary that examined the impact of the refugee crisis in the mid-2010s on the Italian island of Lampedusa. As boatloads of desperate migrants arrive in Lampedusa, a boy, a doctor and a radio jockey are among those who provide a humane, and yet clinical, view of events.
In Notturno, the immersive camerawork and overall empathy for the Arab people battle with the abstraction imposed by the documentary’s larger design. The careful framing and washed-out colour tones create moments of beauty amidst devastation. But a bit like the film’s subjects, we too wait in anticipation for the orchestrated silence to break and the unmediated cries of a long-suffering population to emerge.
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