'Notturno' Is Not Journalism, But Gianfranco Rosi's Movie Investigates the Heart of the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno (“Nocturne”) was filmed over the course of three years, during the director’s travels through war zones in the Middle East. It is, in so many ways, a film full of pointed silences and absences — among them, a direct and immediate view of warfare in itself. Notturno’s interest is in the residues of war. The stories it threads together, set among small communities in Lebanon, Syria, Kurdistan, and Iraq, are never forced to merge or neatly coalesce. But they bear a glaring consistency of scars, memories, and loss. And they share other, less tragic things: worship, work, the everyday carrying out of life for the people who remain.

It’s worth noting these details up front because certain basic facts of the movie — how long it took to make, where it was set, how it came about — are the essential conditions of this film’s making, much in the way that the lede of a piece of investigative reporting might catalog the number of documents surveyed, the scores of people interviewed, the hundreds of hours of tape all pooled together to make the story possible and credible. 

Notturno is not journalism. Yet from its very outset it raises the same questions about itself and its own making, about the film’s ability to show what it shows, because what it shows is often so immediately intimate — private to the point of making a viewer want to avert their eyes. We are, as a world public, used to images of war, particularly from the parts of the world Notturno documents. We expect these images; we call them news. As news, they are information. As information, they often encourage the opposite of what a sense of humanity otherwise demands of us. In place of particularity or the sense that lives have value, this flood of information has the perplexing ability to encourage distance. 

It is hard to feel distant from the sound of a Kurdish mother mourning a son murdered in a Turkish prison camp. Or the straightforward affect of a child describing the day his family fled violence in Syria — a child who has, in therapy, plainly and with little filter produced a crayon illustration of that event, and of bodies without heads that represent the bodies of relatives. There’s no distance in a family’s living room, with younger children sprawled on the floor doing their homework as their older brother collapses on the couch with fatigue; and even less distance when, at precisely the moment a viewer might being to wonder about the whereabouts of this family’s father, a close-up on the oldest child’s face, with all its world-weariness, provides an answer to unutterable question. 

Notturno is a film that restricts itself to a vacuum of post-war experience. It allows us glimpses of healing, or attempts at healing, and a plenitude of scenes and shots which, out of context, might seem like nothingness. A mule at the crossroads of a busy intersection at night, say, whose breathing gradually overwhelms the sounds of people and car engines, as if the director were zooming in on the life that quietly persists, unheard, until we’re given the tools to properly hear it. This is another way of saying that Rossi isn’t steeping us in the easy pornography of trauma, here. Rather, he keys in on the surreality of what the people he films experience as everyday life. That’s what his images — which are oddly, even uncomfortably, beautiful at times, taking in streetlights and destroyed landscapes and cleared-out valleys and the shadow-stricken interiors of a psychiatric ward with equivalent stillness and care — encourage in their viewer. They encourage certain questions of ethics, too, and pending the viewer, those questions either work to the film’s benefit or detriment. Their gloss of perfectly staged perfection is either the least or most intrusive, meaning exploitative, way into the world of this film imaginable. 

Rossi, who is credited as the cinematographer, seems ready to tackle these questions, even if his film doesn’t inspire them uniformly. There’s much to be said for the organization and structure for this movie. At the psychiatric war, a small troupe of patients are asked to put on a play about their respective homelands, and the military coups, occupations, encounters with ISIS and the like that may well explain their presence in this ward. We see the patients roaming the halls, practicing their lines — “We will not die, we will resist and the homeland will resist.” Lines which, by the end of the film, feel as fulfilling as they are futile, for all the ways they can bear witness to, but never reverse or undo, the past. One of these moments is immediately followed by the quiet static of women soldiers in uniform, standing guard, positioned as if in anticipation of something, and completely silent in this anticipation. It’s the buttressing of scenes like these end to end that give this movie an energy that’s hard to pin down, because it could imply so many things — among them, a sense of straight-faced farce, or futility, or tragedy, or none of the above. 

The film generates feelings that it also resists. Rossi’s clear hand in guiding us through those feelings — his unwavering gaze anchoring all of it in the feelings and realities of his subjects — are what give Notturno a sense of care and accomplishment. One sequence of motorbikes on a street a night — some headed one way, others barreling in the opposite direction — feels like a readymade précis of at least one of his methods here, in which crosscurrents of experience push against each other, with no one line emerging victorious because war has already won. The stillness of his images feels like the resulting standstill of those competing forces. It also demands that the viewer sit, eyes open, with everything that we see, and try to make sense of lives that are not neither explaining themselves to us nor proceeding with a poignant sense of normalcy. Notturno’s attitudes are too slippery for that; the film does not make you feel any one, easy thing. 

One scene will likely always stick with me: one of those children of war whose drawings we see and stories we hear being advised in therapy, and with great care, to breathe. “You are in a safe place now,” the woman says. “Not like the place in your drawing. Put that out of your mind.” Rossi’s film suggests that there may be no such thing as out of mind, not when artillery fire can so frequently be heard in the distance at night, not when the decrepit aftermaths of destruction remain standing, and certainly not when one has seen what these children have seen. For the steadiness of its images, for its quietude, Notturno is keen on showing us a world that endures beyond its scars. And its just as keen on depicting the scars that cannot be shaken.

In Virtual Cinemas January 22nd, 2021; on Premium on Demand and Hulu January 29th, 2021.

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