directed by Gianfranco Rosi
by Bill Chambers Notturno, meaning "nocturne" or simply "night" in the original Italian, opens with an epigraph stating that the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of WWI left the Middle East vulnerable to violent power-grabs in the decades that followed. What we're about to see, we are told, was shot over a period of three years in Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon, during the recent campaign of terror by ISIS forces, and one of the bones I have to pick with Gianfranco Rosi's latest observational documentary is the unresolved friction between this pithy summary of how the Middle East became a global blind spot and Notturno's conflation of those four Islamic countries on screen into one endless desert. Hypocritical might be too histrionic a word for it, but I can't think of anything better in that ballpark. The film begins with a cluster of older women garbed in jilbaabs, I believe they're called, filing into an abandoned, cavernous building and snaking up the stairs in a way that feels ceremonial. Is it a place of worship? The surroundings are difficult to parse. The women reach a small, cell-like room, and one of them cries out for her son, who died there while being held prisoner. Her anguish echoes across the next few passages, including cryptic shots of a guy staked out in the wilderness with a rifle, scenes of soldiers perhaps running drills, and rehearsals for some kind of play that the movie soon adopts as a framing device.
"Cryptic," "perhaps," "some kind of"--Notturno throws us into the deep end, which can be disengaging bordering on soporific, especially without any real arcs to trace in these vignettes. It's not unlike watching random security footage, albeit considerably more aestheticized. But about halfway through the film, we meet a group of people forced to explain themselves, i.e., schoolchildren discussing their war trauma very matter-of-factly with their teacher, and Rosi's editing gets a bit more, well, editorial. Gratifyingly, Notturno starts to shed its clinical distance, its juxtapositions--such as the rhyming tableaux of prisoners packed into one bunk room like orange sardines and a large family huddled together on a few couches and air mattresses at bedtime--even taking on an ironic tang. Rosi, too, becomes more receptive to the spoken word, and the kids showing off their scary drawings ("These are the chopped heads of the Yazidis") ultimately speaks louder than yet another image of soldiers and rubble, although I'm not entirely certain of what Notturno wants to say. It has an eerie stillness, though, that feels cumulatively apocalyptic. The picture concludes with a mother waking her teenage son at dawn so he can go wait by the side of the road for one of the passing hunters to make him their assistant for the day. Hunt or be hunted, I guess. This shitty world. Programme: Masters