Director: Gianfranco Rosi
If the world is getting smaller thanks to the freer access to information and ideas, then borders have become the natural pressure points at which differing cultures and sets of values intersect. These geographical lines – which can seem somewhat arbitrary to those looking from afar – are fractal lines of tension at the best of times, but throw in the sheer complexity and myriad histories of the Middle East and you’ve got a set of particularly volatile boundaries.
Gianfranco Rosi’s latest documentary, Notturno (Italian for ‘night’), was shot over three years along the borders of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Kurdistan (itself a region that crosses lines on the map). Like his notable prior works Sacro GRA and Fire at Sea, it is a narrative-free exploration of everyday life told through juxtaposition. Rosi presents us with images and, often, uses a cut to recontextualise what we’ve just seen. There is no on-screen text keeping us up-to-date with where we are along the miles of these borders; no inter-titles. Rosi chops and changes without exposition and – as with Fire at Sea particularly – the range of what’s shown veers from the humdrum and banal to the quietly gut-wrenching. Rosi appreciates that these extremes exist in combination, side by side, and a lack of drama can often reinforce the power of a more loaded moment. And vice-versa.
Hailing from Italy – a European venturing into and documenting another region entirely – Rosi runs the risk of conflating all of the political issues faced by these countries, mixing and confusing them, presenting them as homogeneous and without delineation. Especially as context is so often removed from the moments we’re shown. That’s a fair criticism. But as with his previous films, one senses that that word ‘juxtaposition’ is key to Rosi’s intent. There are similarities to the conflicts in these regions, but there is also shared humanism.
The film’s opening examples are as pointed as any. Rosi begins with soldiers, arranged into their platoons, marching at intervals around a square. Neat. Orderly. But also aggressive and masculine. He switches from this to a group of women, elsewhere, visiting the places where loved ones were once tortured. A woman touches a wall and seems to be talking to the dead; asking questions without answer. The scene is feminine, spiritual and more tactile. More emotionally tactile. The scenes are self-explanatory, but the one also tells us more about the other because of their proximity. Because of how they border one another. The unspoken and unknown space – or closeness – between them.
The military isn’t solely the province of men, however, as a later scene shows us a platoon of women sharing the warmth from an electric heater. They bivouac together. Read. Sleep. A window in their wall is a segue to another place. A bunker or foxhole. Dirt rises, green fields and sentries. A sense of waiting. Stillness that remains tense because who knows when it will be broken. Throughout Notturno there’s a sense of a breath being held, of anticipation. That anything that can nominally be called peace here is only an interim and that this sense of preparedness has become customary. The way of things. How tiring that must be. Rosi’s images of trenches and piled missiles are like echoes from a century ago and a continent away. As though through all of the West’s meddling over the years we’ve only succeeded in handing these countries the paraphernalia of our past wars. We’ve passed on our ghosts.
As with Fire at Sea, Rosi seems to like the idea of contrasting these things with the machinations of fisherman. A boy reels in nets, and its as indicative of the film’s interest in basic humanity and living as anything more pointedly militaristic or political that’s presented. In a way his work is a great leveler. At their most basic, all are acts of perpetuation. The use of children in his impressionistic narratives invokes another kind of juxtaposition. Innocence versus experience. At one point he cuts from a classroom to a prison yard.
Throughout Rosi frames with an exquisite eye for how light will fall and colour his images. In the main he favours static shots. His carefully paced cinema feels spiritually connected to the ‘slow cinema’ seen coming out of Taiwan in the last few decades. The images themselves may be beautiful or stirring, but as much emotion is generated in the cut and the wait for the cut. Notturno also has an internal tension. With so much of what’s offered immaculately composed, how ‘truthful’ is it? To what extent has it been choreographed for capture? To an extent we all editorialise. Notturno occasionally feels too staged or sanitised. Are these real events, or controlled reenactments. And which is the more ethically acceptable?
Invasion. Occupation. Extremism. ISIS. Notturno‘s far-ranging geographical study comes to feel like an examination of the imprint of these things on a disparate psyche, not a collective one. The space and quietude in the picture speaks of the unquantified distances between its humble stars. Their inclusion together speaks of a disjointed unity in spite of their differences. It’s not so much one-size-fits-all as all sizes happening at once.
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