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FILM REVIEW: Notturno – The BFI London Film Festival 2020

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

 Writer and Director: Gianfranco Rosi

“I don’t know what your destiny will be, my Homeland,”: lines taken from a play written for patients in a psychiatric ward as they reflect on the cost of decades of military rule, violence and tyranny. Filmed on the Iraq, Kurdistan, Syrian and Lebanon borders in the last three years, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary film Notturno presents a silent kaleidoscopic picture of the experience and consequences of living in a permanent war-like state.

Images are central to Rosi’s approach, there is no narration or news footage, no screen-cards to indicate geographical location or context within the main body of the film, no one speaks to camera or provides a summation of events, nor is there any overarching story as such. Instead Rosi has shot and combined footage from all kinds of places markedly affected by conflict.

The words we do hear come from speeches, overheard conversation and the lines of the play being rehearsed at the hospital that speak of darkness and hope that the Homeland will be saved by God. Even then, these are used sparingly and for the most part, Rosi wants us to observe the young teenager cleaning a rifle at home, to notice the beauty of the city nightscape punctuated by the sounds of gunfire, the female army units warming their hands at the barracks and the distressed mother bewailing the death of her son in the prison where he was killed while staring at photos of his injured corpse.

Throughout the rather lengthy one hour and 40-minutes of Notturno, Rosi juxtaposes the unsettling impression of ordinary and military life where traditional ways of living and ancient ritual smacks against the technology of a military presence. So we see horses and mopeds running down the same dark street, the boy with the rifle guards the fields before returning home to his many siblings, a lone military figure in a small boat wends his way through the reeds as he searches for hidden enemies and traumatised children attend a therapy session with their teacher.

Rosi understands that war, for the most part, is waiting, so he includes many images of soldiers on patrol, watching the beautiful and often lush landscape from bunkers and sentry posts, acting as a deterrent and front line for whatever it is they are protecting. And Rosi’s camera has clearly had impressive access to all kinds of locations that would usually be off-limits, taking the viewer into the wider impact of conflict on these border areas.

But what we never get in Rosi’s otherwise comprehensive approach is any vigorous analysis, the whys and hows that have affected the nations and the individuals represented here. A lot of Notturno is beautifully filmed and honest, but without understanding who the enemies are supposed to be, it remains a series of quiet impressions that only feels more disparate as the film heads into its second hour, lessening its overall impact.

Notturno’s most affecting section involves the schoolchildren drawing the incidences of brutality, murder and torture inflicted by ISIS soldiers on their communities in which a boy describes the images he has created that will always be in his head. But while Rosi brings breadth and commonality to the impact of war, the political and historical nuances of these very complicated countries are lost on the broader canvas.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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