‘Notturno’ Review: The Heart of the Middle East

The sound of distant gunfire crops up in the background in Gianfranco Rosi’s “Notturno,” one of many reminders of how war has shaped the inhabitants of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Kurdistan who appear onscreen. Rosi has a way of sitting with people, sometimes close-up, more often from afar, and soaking in their lived experience and the pulse of landscapes shaped by brutal external forces (from Western incursions to ISIS). His melancholic documentary moves beyond a sense of perpetual aftermath by picking up threads of continuity in people’s resilience.

Rosi, who directed the migrant-focused “Fire at Sea,” excels at uncovering scenes of drama and emotion without leveraging them for sentimental impact. The opening sequences of “Notturno” offer a kind of overture for the whole film: soldiers march past the camera in relentless hut-hut-hut succession; an old woman mourns her son, touching the walls in what looks like an abandoned prison; and a man rows off into the night, seemingly to hunt for food. We’ll see more of people getting through their days — a couple smoking hookah on a rooftop is one sweet sight — but shots of soldiers are never very far, standing guard, waiting. Half an hour in, a boy also starts to appear, working multiple jobs, and in his youth, he’s like a glimpse of a hopeful horizon.

But the boy also has noticeable sleep circles under his eyes, and Rosi’s moody photography moves between this kind of sympathetic portraiture and vistas of countrysides with yawning skies, or crepuscular city streets. (Some desolate backdrops recall his underappreciated 2008 film, “Below Sea Level,” which visited with the squatters of Slab City, California, years before “Nomadland.”) Lest the film sound like a kind of travelogue, it can also knock the wind out of you, as in a wrenching look at children and their drawings about violent traumas inflicted by ISIS.

Eschewing interviews and captions, Rosi puts his faith in a steady tripod camera and an evident ability to build up trust. He’s able to join troops on what looks like a nighttime reconnaissance mission, to watch rehearsals of a play about Iraqi history at a Baghdad psychiatric hospital, and to observe ISIS soldiers milling about in a prison yard. The past two decades of documentary film have produced many anatomies of history that attempt to summarize several millenniums, but Rosi’s borderless tableaus bring out another kind of truth in faces, places and pure feeling.

Notturno
Not rated. In Arabic and Kurdish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas. Starting Jan. 29, watch on Hulu and rent or buy on pay TV operators.

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