This documentary portrait of war and its aftermath in several areas of the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Kurdistan – is an unsettling experience and moves to an unusual beat. Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea, Sacro GRA) avoids telling us who or what we’re watching, or even where the story is unfolding at any given point, apart from the introductory titles that explain how he’s interested in the fallout from colonialism and war and how he shot his film over several years in those places.
It’s like wandering around a themed photo exhibition in a gallery with no explanatory labels. The imagery is beautiful, the atmosphere is striking, but it’s up to us to apply logic and ideas to what we’re seeing. Even talk from those who appear on screen is sparing, although we do dip into some conversations, such as a young man talking about the back trouble caused by holding a machine gun all day or, most distressingly, the voicemails left for her mother by a young woman being held by ISIS at some unknown location.
It’s disorientating at first: Where are we? What are we seeing? But gradually recurring people and places emerge: there’s a group of adults (in a hostel or maybe a hospital) rehearsing a play that looks back on wartime experiences; there are groups of young soldiers, some of them all-female, going about their daily work; there are kids recalling how they saw their family being tortured before their eyes.
The title – ‘night-time’ – could be interpreted in several ways. Sure enough, many scenes do take place in the later hours. But Notturno also begs the question of whether this is the bleakest of times we’re witnessing (and a lot of it feels bleak) or, more optimistically, whether these scenes are the dark before the dawn. Several of the story strands suggest a moment of moving on, of re-emerging from the dark. It’s a fitful experience, moments of wonder followed by moments of confusion, but it offers a fresh perspective on stories that have become over-familiar from mere headlines or news reports.
Streaming on Mubi in the UK, Ireland, India and Latin America Mar 5.