Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 06, 2020 8:52 pm 
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On the edge of war in the Middle east: a dark visual poem

In principle I want a documentary about world events to be filled with information, narrated, printed, explaining, informing. But with none of that Gianfranco Rosi has made am extraordinary multi-valent, complex film that's rich, poetic and haunting beyond what he achieves in his Oscar-nominated previous one, Fire at Sea (NYFF 2016) about refugees coming to Italy via Lampedusa. This is remarkable filmmaking, brilliant editing, and essential viewing. It's not reportage, as such, except insofar as a novel about war and suffering is reportage.

He does have a text to introduce the film in very general terms, speaking about the colonial powers sketching out borders in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire; "greed and ambition" leading to "military coups, corrupt regimes, authoritarian leaders and foreign interference; then "tyranny, invasions and terrorism" in a "vicious circle" feeding off each other "to the detriment of the civilian population." The film, the text explains, was shot over "the past three years" along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon.

What follows is beautiful and striking, and terrifying and horrifying and haunting. The title "Nocturne" isn't strictly accurate, more a poetic truth - though a lot happens at night. It's more that the mood is somber, dark, and weary too at times.

Rosi is a filmmaker whose access again and again puzzles the mind. How is he there in that house full of chidden and women at night, where the boy Ali sleeps on a sofa covered with a comforter with a big red rose on it? How is he in that prison with all the prisoners in red overalls, let out for a brief run in the courtyard, then sent back, the hands of each on the shoulders of the one before, then locked away, huddled close together on the floor of a big room in darkness and silence? How on earth does he follow a young man on a motorcycle running out to wetlands, getting in a small canoe, and trolling around at night amid reeds and byways with a rifle, in utter silence?

Another access is to women visiting a prison where their men died and theatrically wailing. This is a display made for the camera. But was it easy to get access, or did they want only to grieve, however loudly, for each other? One supposes he got permission to go to the psychiatric hospital in Syria. Then he he struck gold when a doctor began rehearsing half a dozen patients in a play he had written about war and corruption and colonialism in Syria, and Al Qaida and Isis. He enters the room of two patients both in the play and listens to them reading and memorizing their parts. They are gruff, stocky old men - and one scrawny old woman. When they rehearse, the doctor gets so excited he climbs up on the little stage to "conduct" them. The words of the play provide commentary enough on what has happened to Syria. The dear leader is not mentioned, though. (This is one time when something like standard Arabic is heard.)

There are purely military scenes, though artillery fire is only heard in the distance, notably when the young man is paddling his canoe in the marshland - and off on the horizon there is brightness, perhaps from a battle? What the hell is this guy doing? The answer is, living his life. We see a group of women soldiers, and follow them inside a large room with a heater where they take off their outer gear and rest up for the night. Their job is entering buildings and seeing if they're safe.

The film's very first sequence, at dusk, watches a series of running, chanting squads of soldiers going up a road. In between each squad there is quiet, then the shouting of the next squad of men comes as a thrilling surprise, every time. As Ben Croll says in his Indiewire review, Rosi "uses quietness as a visual tool," listens for it, and manipulates it in this continually haunting and sometimes scary film.

At other times there are military vehicles, including a group of heavy armored trucks flying big American flags. Iraq, I suppose. There is also a bunker overlooking a vast empty green plain, which may have been a settlement. Armed soldiers sit silently.

One of the most powerful sequences of course is that of the schoolchildren, who have been prisoners of Isis. The boy Fawiz has seen every imaginable horror and been in numerous camps. He stammers when he speaks. No wonder. Nine children talk to the teacher alone. She counsels Fawiz to breathe deeply and think peaceful thoughts. The children together draw pictures of what they have seen and put them up on the wall, and talk about them. The atrocities of Isis, they have been there, beatings, beheadings, burning of feet, "for no reason."

But of all these the presiding sprit is Ali, the teenager first seen on a fishing boat, in full yellow rubber gear, helping pull in a net. Later he goes shooting birds by himself, and comes back with a dozen. He goes out on the road early to be hired for $5 a day, to spot birds for a man hunting, and fetch them. Ali has a beautiful, sad face. His life is peaceful, but it's on the edge of war. This film puts us, for a little while, in his place. This film leaves you sad, haunted, and moved. It's a kind of long tragic cinematic poem about war and the disintegration of the Middle East.

Notturno, 100 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2020; showing also at Toronto, Reykjavík, New York, London and Chicago. Screened online for this review as part of the virtual/drive-in New York Film Festival, Tues., Oct. 6, 2020. Metascore: 77.

The film became available online in virtual cinema Jan. 23, 2021 and available on demand and on Hulu Jan. 29, 2021.

Consider along with this: The Distant Barking of Dogs (Simon Lereng Wilmont (SFIFF 2018).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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