Four years ago, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary, Fire at Sea, was submitted by Italy to compete for what is now called International Feature at the Academy Awards. It didn’t get nominated in that category, but it did get a nod for Documentary Feature. History seems to be possibly repeating itself now with his follow-up feature, Notturno (Italian for “nocturnal”). It too has been submitted by Italy, and it is also under consideration for the docs. A spiritual successor to Fire at Sea, which dealt with the refugee crisis in a small island community, Notturno seeks to portray the “new normal” for people who could not flee the war zones in the Middle East, particularly former ISIS-held territories in Syria, Kurdistan, Iraq, and Lebanon.
However, from where I sat, I was more reminded of a different documentary nominee from a couple years ago, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, which is sadly not a compliment. While Rosi puts his film together much better than that previous entry, I got the same disconnected feel from this film as I did from RaMell Ross’ observational, slice-of-life piece.
The Virtual Cinema where I watched the film (laemmle.com, available until February 4) included a 30-minute interview with Rosi, hosted by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, so I was able to get a feel for what Rosi was going for, and based on his intentions, he does succeed. He wanted a completely detached relationship with his myriad subjects over the course of this three-year endeavor, in order to give us a look at the daily lives of these people completely free of narrative and editorializing. Iñárritu described it as a sort of cinematic haiku, which is an interesting way of seeing things, as the film does have a strange, almost pastoral influence. But unfortunately, that detachment, like Hale County, also makes the film feel disjointed. It’s one thing to remain objective and not assert one opinion over another, but when there’s no thematic through line or sense of progression, the movie feels more like moving photographs than an actual story.
It’s a shame, too, because from a technical aspect, Rosi’s latest is phenomenal. The opening scene, of a military camp caught somewhere between night and day, jangles you into paying attention, as several squads of drilling soldiers enter the frame, jogging to cadence calls that you can’t hear until the troops are visible. The next scene shows a group of older women grieving at an abandoned Iraqi prison, where one melodically mourns a son who was tortured and killed, her only mementos being disturbing photographs of his bloodied corpse.
This sets the tone for Rosi’s entire collage. The camera is always still. Once a shot is set, it never moves. And his sound mixer makes sure that only audio that can be visually connected via the lens is heard, leaving many a scene in total silence. Rosi also intentionally only shoots at night, or during cloudy days, partly because that allows for minimal light fluctuations, but also to illustrate the dark days these people are still experiencing.
All of that is truly great, but there’s no story, which makes it really hard to stay engaged with the people on screen, especially as we jump back and forth through several unnamed locations with several people, most of whom also are nameless. An adolescent boy hunts small birds to feed his family. A couple smokes a hookah on their home’s roof, the bubbling water matching the pitch, tempo, and timbre of gunfire in the distance. Patients in a psychiatric ward are cast in a play that straddles the line between patriotism and propaganda. School children draw pictures of the murderous trauma they’ve suffered and speak about it in a matter-of-fact sense like beheadings are part of their daily routine. A mother silently plays phone messages from her kidnapped daughter, relaying ransom demands from ISIS.
Some of these vignettes are downright devastating, particularly the ones involving children. Other bits, like soldiers training, are honestly quite boring, to the point that I half wondered if the “nocturnal” title was used as a means to put people to sleep. It’s maddening at times, because we’re rarely, if ever, given any context apart from three sentences of text on a blank slate at the beginning of the film. The idea is to show how people are adjusting to life, but we’re never really given any indication of how this is any different from their lives 10, 20, or however many years ago. Without knowing where these folks came from, we can’t know where they’re going. It’s still horrifying in the abstract, but we’re given no indication that anything has changed from before, or if it can change in future.
That’s where I get the sad comparison to Hale County, which I very nearly hated. Back then it looked like RaMell Ross just decided to film anything he felt might look poignant or artistic, regardless of whether it had any bearing on whatever story he was trying to tell. Here, Gianfranco Rosi does the same thing (though at least he doesn’t bother shooting the Moon for 45 straight seconds apropos of nothing). He’ll spend 10 minutes on the school children and their heartbreaking pictures, but never visit them again, yet he’ll cut back and forth multiple times to the psych ward play rehearsals, with no connective tissue to give us a reason to care about one group versus the other. And while his desire to remain completely detached is a noble thought, it robs us in the audience of any narrative catharsis. He tells Iñárritu in the interview that he intentionally didn’t ask any questions on film because he didn’t want to posit on any answers. Fine, fair enough, but what agenda could have possibly been inserted by asking that weeping mother if she ever got her daughter back? If she did, the crowd can breathe a sigh of mild relief. If she didn’t, we can weep with her. But to not know at all is a compromise that satisfies no one, and to not even pose the question almost feels negligent.
From a filmmaking standpoint, there’s a lot to like in this film, but from a storytelling one, I just can’t recommend it. The shots are immaculately framed, allowing what action there is to unfold entirely in front of it, and we are the voyeuristic observer. But the constant switching from subject to subject without any kind of context or through line is confusing at best and infuriating at worst. I get what Rosi was trying to accomplish here, I really do, and in many respects he succeeds. But as someone simply watching a documentary, hoping for a little glimpse of truth and knowledge, there’s just not enough there.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Which documentaries do you like best? Which filmmaker do you wish you could interview? Let me know!