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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Notturno (2021)

Notturno starts off with a bit of context. We are briefly told how the modern conflicts and problems in The Middle East came about. Colonial powers found themselves sketching out new borders for the Middle East after the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the First World War. As a result of this, decades of war, military coups, corrupt regimes, dictatorships, foreign interference and a never-ending bloody lust for power set the region ablaze. This context is vital for what follows in Notturno, a documentary that works as a snapshot of the people who inherited suffering and injustice thanks to this exhibition of greed and power.

Filmed over three years, Notturno takes us to the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon. This film is not about how we got to this point, but about the ordinary people having to adapt and live in the smoldering ruins left behind by tyrannical leaders, foreign invasions and the looming threat of terrorism. Living in our safe bubbles on the other side of the world, director Gianfranco Rosi places us right in the presence of his subjects, utilizing his distinct style of making us the fly on the wall, absorbing every nuanced detail.

Rosi’s style isn’t for everyone though. He never uses exposition again in the film. No talking heads, no text scrolls to update us on where we are, who are speaking to, etc. It’s not needed. His visuals make up for the lack of dialogue in Notturno, letting the imagery of these moments do the talking. Authenticity, true authenticity is the very heart and soul of what makes documentaries an entirely different beast to narrative filmmaking. So Rosi does what he does best, he observes. We don’t push and prod our subjects, we just go with the flow even if some of it does appear to be mundane and uneventful to them and the audience. It’s authentic, and with that authenticity is what makes Notturno such an important piece of art.

It could easily have turned into misery porn, but Rosi’s ability in respecting his subjects manages to stay true to his well defined and effective ability at capturing passing moments that paint a portrait of the region’s people and their circumstances. A hunter patrols the marshes at night in the thick of nature, but just past the reeds, scattered gunfire is soundtracked to the burning oil rigs that colour the sky red. An all-female platoon of Kurdish soldiers huddle around a heater, prepping for another shift on the frontlines. Rosi’s lack of dialogue from his subjects is saved for the most sobering and tragic portions of the film: children recall their harrowing stories of surviving and fleeing genocide at the hands of ISIS to a child psychologist, while a mother listens to voice notes her daughter sent her from inside an ISIS death camp.

Notturno is a gut-wrenching follow-up to Rosi’s Golden Bear winning Fire At Sea (2016) that is just as effective at conveying the sense of urgency needed in a specific region as well as the frustrating lack of it. As mentioned before, Notturno is not for everyone with its slow-burning fly on the wall approach, but once you can get over that hurdle, it is an increasingly essential piece of art made by one of our most important filmmakers working today.

Notturno is available to stream on Hulu.

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