Filmed over three years on the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, Notturno is a documentary about desolation in the Middle East with more realism than most.
Although focused on the victims of all sorts of dictatorships and demagogues whose goons have torn through their lands in the past decade and more, the aftershocks of ISIS are surely the most pronounced. Searing photography of ancient civilisations reduced to rubble makes up the bulk of Notturno, but it never feels gratuitous. Director Gianfranco Rosi has evidently taken immense care to tell the stories of the widowed mothers of lost sons and the children of men and women who fell victim to successive tyrants. Perhaps predictably, it is the mothers who leave the strongest impression. Their pain is unrivalled throughout most of the world, even if this year is giving them a run for their money in scores of places.
“Notturno” in Italian means “night”, which explains much of Rosi’s perspective. There are no firefights or violent battles or even outpourings of indignance among the people he speaks to and watches across the four states (Kurdistan is divided between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq and has no autonomy of its own.) Rather, the subjects of Notturno are the quiet voices of grief and shock, people who’ve lost everything but still live in fear of another invader around the corner. That bleak dance with the future doesn’t exactly make for light viewing, but Notturno doesn’t feel sado-masochistic or self-indulgent, either. Ultimately, Rosi’s film is a plea to the organised world: that regardless of our own (and often well-founded) fears about the chaos of our own politics, there are now swathes of the Middle East which are essentially ungoverned altogether.
Nevertheless, barrenness of many places Notturno shows us does make a reasonably disjointed experience. Rosi’s long takes and sparing use of speech invoke the traditions of slow cinema, which in such a stark setting veers toward overwhelming.
Crucially, however, Notturno never once looks down at its subjects or setting. Rosi makes the canny decision to remind us that this is only night – that day will one day return to these dark corners of the world.