Written and directed by Gianfranco Rosi, shot over the course of three years between Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon, Notturno follows different people from near war zones in the Middle East, trying to start again with their everyday lives.
Officially selected as this year’s Italian Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film, Rosi’s previous documentary Fire at Sea was nominated in 2017 for the Best Documentary Feature but lost out to O.J.: Made in America. This feels like a much bigger risk to take with Notturno being a very slow, serious and withholding film, it’s difficult to predict if it will really connect with voters. It has to be acknowledged that Rosi’s intentions with the film were brilliant, it’s such a fantastic idea to focus on the aftermath rather than simply the conflict as so many have already done. It opens up the conversation hugely about how the reverberations of these violent, barbaric actions are inescapable, and how the people of these countries are simply trying to get back to some form of everyday life but it’s a complicated and punishing road.
It kicks off with a harsh blow of sadness but then creates a slow, quiet and purposeful rhythm, it uses the silence to emphasise its emotion but while it dives in rather quickly, it then moves very indecisively throughout. It struggles to focus on one element, it goes back and forth between different perspectives, never truly landing on one long enough to get a real grasp on their reality and personalities which results in feeling disconnected. It’s slightly frustrating as it genuinely does pick subjects to follow that you’d want to know more about, willing it to stick with them longer to learn more about their lives but it refuses to do so. It pushes so hard to simply be an observation of everyday activities, that it sacrifices a stronger impact by not letting you get to know its subjects. There are a few exceptions to that, particularly a moment where children are given the opportunity to express themselves and their experiences of the war which is intensely intimate and heart-breaking. The issue remains however that this very valuable piece of cinema is simply thrust in the middle of these other stories, taking you off guard which may be by intention but it feels as though there was a better way to go about it.
A lot of the film is relying on the power of its images, it’s a documentary of few words, it’s all about the experience and emotion that the visual creates and to some extent this does work, mostly due to Rosi’s incredible cinematography. It undoubtedly does the job of capturing the message that he’s trying to put across but unfortunately the editing and progression can’t match that level of communication. It sincerely wants for a more personal, intimate tone but the style remains sternly observational and doesn’t allow for that deeper connection with its audience.
Notturno knows exactly what it wants to say but struggles to communicate it effectively. The subject is compelling and meaningful but the style that this story is told through hinders its impact, it refuses to spend too much time allowing you to invest in its subjects before it swiftly moves on. It entirely relies on the visual experience that it’s creating and Rosi’s cinematography brings a lot to the table but not enough to carry it to the finish line.