The devastating impact of conflict is examined in Notturno, Gianfranco Rosi’s mesmerising and visually stunning documentary. Shot over three years along the borders between Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon, this is a quiet collage of ordinary lives lived under the constant threat of war.
Notturno explores the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the first World War, when colonial powers created new borders in the Middle East. Over the decades that followed, greed and the desire for power led to devastating corruption and armed hostilities.
Fitting then, that the first scene in Notturno captures a military exercise. Groups of men run past Rosi’s stationary camera. Their chants grow louder as they approach, and then fade. The pattern repeats. Rosi’s lens lingers for longer than we might expect, giving us the space to consider what is happening and why.
The noise of the men is startling - especially in contrast with Notturno’s next scene. A group of women walk around a damaged building. “My son, I feel your presence in these windows, in these walls,” cries one. “God has decided that I had to live without you.” Her grief is quiet and powerful - haunting a building that was once a prison.
Without explanation, Rosi moves away once more. His next subject is a poacher sitting in a boat on a river. The poacher glides through the reeds, framed by oil wells and accompanied by the sound gunfire.
Notturno’s collection of observations will also introduce us to female Peshmerga guerrillas, a group of prison inmates, hospital patients rehearsing a play, a Yazidi woman whose daughter is being held by ISIS and Ali, a teenager who works at night to bring bread home for his family.
Rosi leaves it to his audience to interpret these stories. Notturno is the cinematic definition of show don’t tell. The film doesn’t tell us where we are or why we are there. Borders are irrelevant, of course. What unifies the people we meet is tragedy, loss and the strength to keep moving forward.
For a documentary about conflict, Notturno is notable for its stillness. Each story is beautifully shot - almost painterly in composition. Rosi’s use of crisp diegetic sound is also impressive and immersive.
However, one of the most powerful scenes in the film breaks this sense of quiet. It is something of a relief when we hear the voices of children. Tragically, our relief does not last long. These children have devastating tales to tell - they have experienced unimaginable horrors.
The detached way Rosi’s camera captures these children - and all the subjects in his film - is unsettling and, at times, frustrating. Watching Notturno, we crave greater explanation and connection. Rosi’s passive (and somewhat intrusive) observations weigh heavily on his film.
As a result, the whole of Notturno does not feel quite as powerful or insightful as its many individual parts. Nonetheless, the cumulative effect of Rosi’ documentary is moving and thought provoking.