If Gianfranco Rosi previously posed the question in “Fire at Sea” of why there have been so many refugees left in search of a place they can call home in a world where land is abundant, it feels as if there is no solid ground to walk on in his arresting follow-up “Notturno,” following a handful of stories set on the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon. Rosi doesn’t come to document active combat, but the three years he spent there yields a portrait of how even after the obvious threats have receded in contested territories, there seems to be more danger in an enemy that’s become disembodied and harder to quantify or protect against, making the ability to rebuild nearly impossible.
The spectre of the military is established at the start of “Notturno” when Rosi shows soldiers on their morning job and eventually embeds with a group of female Peshmerga soldiers who can only watch YouTube videos of battle when their own patrols don’t result in much action these days, but instead of actually seeing them in action, you can only see the results as the filmmaker goes inside a hollowed out building with a group of women, one of whom has come to mourn her son who was killed there, running her hand against a wall as a way to remain close to him and blaming the Turkish state for his death. With that scene lingering over its entirety, “Notturno” needn’t show any combat, leaving it largely in the background where artillery fire can be heard every now and again in the background of scenes from daily life like a couple enjoying smoking from a hookah on their rooftop or oil derricks on fire as a hunter zips around the countryside, seemingly adjusted to a new normal, though no one should have to live this way.
In a bit of inspiration, Rosi travels to a psychiatric ward to chart the insanity of Middle Eastern history via a production performed by the patients, who can be seen roaming the hallways repeating jingoistic platitudes to memorize them, the echoes sounding a lot like decades of war that have stunted any potential for progress. Art is also used for therapy for young Yazidi children who articulate the trauma of being abused and seeing people in their communities murdered by ISIS with drawings, and “Notturno” is able to act as a similar emotional facilitator for expressing incalculable devastation — typical of Rosi’s work, the sum of individual parts adds up to something greater with the director’s masterful juxtapositions both inside individual frames and between scenes that reveal the profound in the seemingly mundane, observing trucks cross waterlogged roads that literally crumble before your eyes when societal infrastructure has fallen apart and a mother can only listen to messages from her daughter begging for money as ISIS holds her hostage, feeling helpless when access to money or knowledge of authorities she could trust to contact aren’t within reach.
As in “Fire at Sea,” the future is reflected in a young boy Ali, who lives in a spare house with seven other children, bringing back food and pocket change from odd jobs he takes volunteering himself to passerbys as a day worker. He doesn’t appear to question carrying the weight of this responsibility for the entire clan, but it raises plenty for an audience as he simply expects to brace for come what may, an untenable position that only makes sense in a world that no longer does. The path forward may never come into focus in “Notturno,” but where the Middle East is right now is brought into sharp relief.