'Notturno': Film Review | Venice 2020

Venice Film Festival
Stylistically luminous, though less original than Rosi’s previous films.

Award-winning Italian documaker Gianfranco Rosi ('Sacro GRA', 'Fire at Sea') spent three years filming in the Middle East to recount the lives of ordinary people in wartime.

With a compassionate eye for the downtrodden that has characterized all Gianfranco Rosi’s work, Notturno brings three years of shooting in Middle East war zones to the screen in an impressionistic collage of ordinary people caught up in conflict. Though very much in the luminous style of his award-winning docs Sacro GRA about the eccentric residents of Rome’s ring road (Golden Lion in Venice 2013) and Fire at Sea (Golden Bear in Berlin 2016) about the migrant crisis on the island of Lampedusa, it lacks those films’ idiosyncratic premises — and, in consequence, feels less revealing than many Arab films made on the same topic.

But for those who prefer the rough edges smoothed over by refined framing, exceptional camerawork (Rosi is his own DP) and bewitching local music, Notturno is a reliable window onto the Middle East mess. Following its bow in Venice competition, the Italian-French-German coprod will play at TIFF and the New York Film Festival.

For three years, Rosi traveled around Libya, Iraq, Kurdistan and Syria talking to people and accumulating striking images, not of the fighting itself but of life behind the front lines, where people are trying to glue their shattered lives together. The war has an oppressive presence, but it is always just off-screen. The film has little dialogue and no interest in identifying specific places, so it’s a futile exercise trying to guess where individual scenes take place. Like all the director’s films, it’s a mood piece that still retains a strong element of social and political criticism.

Rosi opens on soldiers training at a base in camouflage. Recurrent images of tanks and rifles standing out against the sky become a theme in themselves, suggesting well-equipped foreign armies on Mideast soil for their own purposes. The only clearly identifiable Arab fighters are a women’s battalion (presumably Kurds) who silently file into a room and take down their hair after a hard day holding their position on a deserted plain.

Other, more traditional veiled women in black wander through a ruined prison and mourn the death of a young man who has been beaten and tortured there. His old mother’s singsong voice has something ritualistic and ancient in it that undercuts the emotion of the scene.

We glimpse several recurring characters in long shot, until they finally come into close focus later in the film. The first is a youth who leaves his motorbike in some rushes and takes a rowboat out on the river to hunt ducks. In contrast to this peaceful scene, emphasized by the lovely glow of twilight, come intermittent bursts of machine gun fire in the background, where city lights twinkle in the distance.

Another figure whose haunted face somehow recalls the boy in Fire at Sea is a handsome teenage boy, apparently the sole source of income for his mother and five siblings. He hires himself out by the day or night as an assistant to fishermen and hunters. In the hunting scene, a man who is paying him $5 for the day treats him like a retriever; the boy scampers to fetch downed birds and the hunter praises him with a “good boy.” These are the kind of small insights Notturno has to offer.

Several times editor Jacopo Quadri returns to a scene that can only be read symbolically. In a building denoted Psychiatric Ward, residents watch a graphic newsreel of the war, then rehearse a patriotic play under the direction of a doctor. It is, of course, about the war — tyranny, invasion, ISIS — and each of the actors diligently memorizes his or her lines for a performance we never see. One imagines it is therapy for these emotionally wounded men and women.

Related to this are the terrifying drawings of violence made by children in their first years of school. While an understanding psychologist listens and gently prods their memories, several kids recall how, as captives of ISIS, they were woken up to be tortured and to witness the murders of adult prisoners. These scenes are delicately filmed in long shot, but the drawings where red pencil stands in for blood are clear enough. The one depicting ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi as a stick figure is a chilling likeness.

Production companies: Stemal Entertainment, 21Uno Film in association with Rai Cinema, Istituto Luce Cinecitta, Les Films d’Ici with Arte, France Cinema, No Nation Films, Mizzi Stock Entertainment
Director, screenwriter, director of photography: Gianfranco Rosi
Producers: Donatella Palermo, Camille Laemle, Serge Lalou, Orwa Nyrabia, Eva-Maria Weerts  Editor: Jacopo Quadri with Fabrizio Federico
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: The Match Factory (North America: Submarine)
100 minutes