Venice 2020 review: Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi)

How do you find beauty in a region that has been a victim to wars, tyrants, and terrorism for over a century? How do you do a portrait of the battered soul of its people who have ploughed on, and are still ploughing on, through almost a decade of IS tyranny and its aftermath? And most of all, how do you do this without a hint of didacticism? Gianfranco Rosi’s observational style of documentary making combined with his humanist approach to his subject matter is probably the best match one could ask for. Even if the observational style is combined with a very deliberate placement of the camera to create an often breathtaking aesthetic, offering an intentionally jarring juxtaposition with what is happening within the meticulously constructed frame.

Shot over three years along the borders of Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan, and Lebanon, Rosi’s sixth feature-length documentary Notturno is another example of him finding the resilience of humanity in the darkest of places. Probably less subtle than his Berlinale winner Fuocoammare, Notturno sees Rosi filming life retaking its normal course even in the direst of circumstances, like trees sprouting after a giant forest fire. After violence and destruction, of which the signs are still omnipresent in the film, comes hope and rebuilding, although sadly given the history of the region it will probably be only a short period of reprieve. But its people are used to it, so they just move on. Yet they have stories to tell, and Rosi lets them in a natural way. He eschews the direct ‘talking heads’ mode of documentary making, but in a way he still employs it. He lets both children and psychiatric patients, both deeply scarred by IS atrocities, dig up their darkest memories. The children through having them draw the agonizing moments they have lived through and then having them explain their drawings. The psychiatric patients through having them rehearse a play based on their own history and the senseless politics they have been submitted to for decades.

What comes out are stories of incomprehensible cruelty, cruelty that no human being should ever have to endure. Even if especially the children recounting their experiences is at times a bit too much on the nose, the naked vulnerability on display leaves a deep impression. It is an easy score for Rosi perhaps, easier to digest than the misery of the subjects of his previous film (refugees crossing the Mediterranean trying to get into Europe), but unfortunately these are still stories that you rarely hear firsthand. They deserve to be told, however, just to underline the gravity of the region’s past decade. Most deeply affecting is probably the mother playing back the voice messages of her daughter, kidnapped by IS in hope of a ransom. The film leaves us hanging with regard to her ultimate fate, but perhaps the tear on the woman’s cheek is clear enough. Notturno is a film about people tentatively stepping out of the titular darkness into a semblance of dawn in the form of what could be called ‘normal life’. But to contrast the normalcy you have to show the darkness, and Notturno does this piercingly.

It also shows it in a very eye-pleasing manner, and this is a criticism always leveled at Rosi. His shots are deliberately framed and constructed to create striking images: there are few filmmakers working today that make films as beautiful as his. Yet he does this to draw attention to the ‘ugliness’ of what he shoots, and Rosi is also a strong believer in the resilience of the human soul, and as such he tries to find beauty in the darkest places. His diagonals are to be marvelled at, but they also draw the eye to the harsh reality in the image. Beauty transforming to misery and misery transforming to beauty. One could call this voyeuristic, except that Rosi’s humanity is too great. With Notturno the Italian director again creates a deeply affecting masterpiece of tenacious survival against all odds, a metaphor for the absolute for what moves us the most: the human being.