The last several years have seen an influx of powerful nonfiction films examining the turmoil in the Middle East and the refugee crisis that has spread from there around the world. But Italian director Gianfranco Rosi has an eye that sets him apart from other filmmakers working in that arena — and his new film, “Notturno,” is another portrait of life in the region that manages to be simultaneously devastating and lyrical.
“Notturno,” which was selected by the Venice, Telluride and New York Film Festivals, and which screens at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 15, is similar in some ways to Rosi’s masterful, Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary “Fire at Sea.” But while that film zeroed in on life on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, tracing the impact of the refugee crisis in the way it impacted the lives of the island’s permanent residents, “Notturno” goes wide, incorporating footage that Rosi shot over the course of three years along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon.
But don’t expect titles to tell you where you are or who you’re watching. Rosi simply gives you images, people and vignettes that play out in front of his camera without explanation. Several groups of soldiers run down a road in the early-morning light; women in black robes walk through a prison, mourning the son who died there; horses stand in the street at night while military trucks drive by; a man paddles through a body of water that’s lit not by moonlight but by distant fires.
The film begins with three sentences, and they’re all the context you’ll get and all the context you’ll need: “After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the First World War, the colonial powers sketched new borders for the Middle East. Over the following decades, greed and ambition for power gave rise to military coups, corrupt regimes, authoritarian leaders and foreign interference. Tyranny, invasions and terrorism fed off each other in a vicious circle, to the detriment of the civilian populations.”
“Notturno” is a film about that civilian population, about the men, women and children who live in lands of constant strife, and about the soldiers who fight on both sides in the conflicts that wrack the region. It shows everything from people trying to go about their daily lives to ISIS prisoners to a young couple smoking from a hookah, the water bubbles oddly echoing the sound of distant gunfire that often reverberates in the movie.
There is no narrative and the people we see are never identified, but these scenes add up to a haunting portrait of a ravaged region. Rosi has an exquisite eye for composition, which is clear in one of the opening scenes: a woman with her back to the wall in a prison cell, a shaft of light from above catching the white scarf around her head while she reaches back to the wall and gropes for a sense of her son, who may have lived and died in that cell.
Apart from the occasional slow pan, the camera doesn’t move; Rosi simply sets it up and lets the action — or, sometimes, the lack of action — play out in front of it, often as not accompanied by silence. There’s an elegance to the look of the film, and a stillness that makes this one of the most meditative works you’ll ever see about war and strife.
We don’t necessarily know what’s going on in every scene; sometimes we figure it out, sometimes we don’t. But we feel it, and we hear what the movie says, wordlessly, with each new composition: This is the world we’ve created.
“I expected a wonderful spring,” says one man rehearsing a play bemoaning the state of the region. “But it became … a spring of rubble and darkness.”
But “Notturno” finds an awful poetry in that rubble and darkness, though at times it’s hard to watch. There’s an absolutely wrenching sequence in the middle of the film, as children display the drawings they’ve made to a woman they call “teacher,” but who seems to be serving as a counselor or therapist of sorts. “This is when ISIS started exterminating us,” one young boy says matter-of-factly, showing off a harrowing sketch and kicking off a powerfully disturbing sequence in which one child after another shows drawings that detail the horrors they’ve seen.
Later, another sequence is almost as horrifying, when a mother listens to a string of messages left by her daughter, who says the ISIS fighters who kidnapped her will sell her back to her family for $500.
But if those moments capture the toll that has been taken across the Middle East, they are only part of an expansive portrait of humans trying to survive in an inhuman world. It’s hard to watch “Notturno” at times, but to the director’s credit it’s also impossible to look away.