Review: Gianfranco Rosi observes daily life in the war-torn Middle East in ‘Notturno’

Cars and trucks cross a road
Cars and trucks traverse a road beside a crater eroded by rain near the Iraq-Syria border, about 62 miles from Mosul in the documentary “Notturno.”

When Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi’s aching, poetic “Fire at Sea” was unveiled in 2016 (on its way to an Oscar nomination), it seemed that the unceasing wave of African migrants landing on Europe’s shores had finally been met not with the pointed glare of news cameras, but an artist’s devotional curiosity about who we are. It was a watershed moment for the primacy of cinema to humanize an ongoing crisis without serving it up like a charitable endeavor.

Rosi’s observational, patient technique of fanning out multiple strands with little identifying information eschews easy classification, because just when you think there’s no guiding principle to what he wants to show you, a story emerges, a detail arises, or an image pops in a way that speaks to something ineffable about life and death. Rosi’s way of watching is its own holistic form of reportage.

Now Rosi has applied his modus operandi to the turbulence of existence in the Middle East, a years-long effort at capturing the daily hum of strife-torn souls that has resulted in the reliably exquisite, beautifully photographed mood piece “Notturno.” (Rosi is his own cinematographer and sound person too.) The question is whether a style of filmmaking that forgoes the stuff that grounds us and relies on a stately impressionism is necessarily the most effectively compassionate approach for a part of the world routinely pegged as a hopeless morass of indistinguishable factions, even when outsiders manage to care. Is this a time for unnamed faces and places?


Rosi spent three years in the border regions of Iraq, Lebanon, Kurdistan and Syria, areas torn apart by upheavals and threats from outside and within — U.S. intervention, schisms, dictators, ISIS — where men, women and children live in a perpetual state of processing and wariness. We see a brigade of female Peshmerga soldiers perform their duties with a silence both strange and respectful, spend time with a young couple sharing a hookah on a rooftop before she dresses him for his nightly rounds of religious singing in the streets, and follow a lone duck hunter canoeing through marshes while oil derricks light up the night sky and machine gun fire peppers the horizon.

The specter of wars fought and conflicts to come is ever present in Rosi’s typically locked, often wide compositions. Grieving mothers wander an abandoned prison where sons were tortured and killed. Patients at a psychiatric hospital are given roles in a play about the violence visited upon their homeland, but it’s unclear beyond the lines about oppression and an uncertain future whether this is helpful therapy or not. More immediately affecting is a classroom sequence in which Yazidi children recount to a female counselor, in stammering words and terrifying drawings, the horrors of Islamic State occupation. That their brief memory spans are already poisoned by unshakeable evils is one of this modern world’s greatest tragedies, and in the stillness of the room — one of the few times Rosi’s camera gets close to his subjects — their soft-spoken testimonials quietly tear at you.

At a certain point, though, the lack of markers — political, geographical, personal — that would give us context beyond the obvious trust in allowing Rosi into these spaces, becomes a nagging opacity in his bid for a humanity that transcends boundaries. Of course, our desire to know more may be the aim in his making art out of civilization’s rubble — that he can get us to pay attention through the sheer majesty of how he pays attention, hopefully making for true engagement, not mere spectating. Still, sometimes you just want more than what you’re given. That’s human too.

It may all depend on the totality of your reactions, though, and whether you feel “Notturno”— in the panoply of Rosi’s specialized, confident hybridizing of intimacy and distance — is a cooler gaze or something emotionally resonant.


In Arabic and Kurdish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Available Jan. 29 on Hulu and VOD