Review: 'Notturno' Takes a Long, Deep Look at a Region in Turmoil

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday January 25, 2021


Gianfranco Rosi's documentary "Notturno" starts out with a little explanatory text that gives historical context. That turns out to be a good thing, because the film itself contains little in the way of spoken words. What there is, though, is powerful: The lamentations of a mother crying out to her dead son, who has been tortured and murdered; a conversation between a husband and wife about whether it's going to rain, as prayer calls and machine guns echo in the night; a makeshift theater troupe in a psychiatric facility setting about the rehearsal of a play that addresses historic traumas; a pair of soldiers, one a driver and one a machine gunner, arguing about whether the driver deliberately hit all the potholes in the road, giving the machine gunner back pain; a teenager named Ali hiring himself out for $5 a day to assist a hunter, as a means of making money to provide for his mother and younger siblings.

Rosi lets us stitch all of this into a larger story as best we can, his camera creating portraits of the lives of people in a region of the Middle East where, the introductory text tells us, "colonial powers" carved up what once had been the Ottoman Empire after World War I, paving the way for decades of "military coups, corrupt regimes, authoritarian leaders and foreign interference."

The result? "Tyranny, invasions, and terrorism fed off each other in a vicious circle, to the detriment of the civilian populations."

It takes a long while to fully appreciate what this means, and how it ties in with what we are seeing. As the film's images accumulate — portraits of cows standing beside a busy city street, a poacher in a slim boat plying a marsh in the dead of night, the husband who had been talking with is wife about the possibility of rainfall making early rounds through the city streets with song and a drum, presumably to rouse the faithful to prayer — its power and intrigue mount. What, exactly, is happening here? Where, exactly, are we? All we know is what we've been told: "This film was shot over the past three years along he borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon." We're left to puzzle out the rest by watching patiently.

A little more than halfway through the movie, we reach a gut-punch sequence in which young children explain their drawings to a "teacher" who is acting as a counselor, gently questioning them about the atrocities they have seen and survived. ISIS is named as the perpetrator; the children tell stories of torture and murder in such a straightforward way that it's heartbreaking; there are no histrionics, but rather long silences in which they struggle to put their experiences and feelings into words. "Teacher, it was bad," a couple of the kids say, and those disclosures feel like enormously potent understatements.

In a couple of scenes we watch a mother listening to voice messages from her kidnapped daughter. ISIS has abducted her and requires a ransom for her life. Tears run silently down the mother's face as her daughter pleads for the ransom to be paid. At other moments we see men talking about their "homeland," and about how one faction or another has run roughshod over them. Iraq and ISIS are blamed, but so, too, is America.

We don't get details of claims or counter-claims or political theories that justify what's happened. We don't even hear that much about what's taken place, though what little we do hear is searing; the theater troupe run through their lines, talking about monarchies that were safe and "democracies" that have proven disastrous, only for the dialogue to abruptly switch over to interrogations of whether those happy times under just rulers ever really happened. The dialectic is broad, tragic, and, given the prevalence of slaughter and oppression in human history, almost generic. Rosi's approach invites us to sympathize with the specific people we see, but also to understand the larger tragedy of how humans mistreat humans.

What lacks in sociopolitical or historical detail is made up for in details of other sorts: Those snippets of conversation, for example, or young Ali returning home with half a dozen or dead birds for his family's dinner and then taking a nap in the living room, where his younger siblings are doing their homework. Grey skies, lonely night vigils lit by cooking fires, the poacher in his slender boat navigating a marsh as skies over a distant city glow red. The specific ethnic minorities who find themselves targeted are mentioned — the Yazidis, the Kurds. They dream of safety and dignity, but live in terror — and preparation, perhaps futile — against the next wave of violence. A flooded, partially destroyed roadway symbolizes the nations of the region, but stubbornly, determinedly, the traffic continues and everyday life carries on.

"Notturno" isn't going to give us answers. It doesn't want to. It wants to pique us and spur us to ask the questions we need to ask.

"Notturno" premieres on virtual cinemas Jan. 22 and becomes available on demand and on Hulu Jan. 29.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.