After Isis: From the Unspeakable to the Unknowable
Notturno, a documentary by Gianfranco Rosi
by Teddy Jefferson
Notturno is the sixth full-length documentary of Italian film maker Gianfranco Rosi. It is his most lush and sparse, most restrained and extreme. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival as Italy staggered out of the first bout of the pandemic, was widely acclaimed as his finest film, and didn't win a single major prize. It was praised by critics for celebrating the "humanity" of its subjects, though this is precisely what it does not do, which may be why it was bypassed for the top prizes. It refuses any interpretation or sweetening.
Beginning with his first film, Boatman (1993), about life in the holy city of Benares in India, two features have characterized Rosi’s work: an extreme fly-on-the-wall method that produces a resonant tension between the intimacy of the shots and the absence of any trace of the cameraman; and a beauty and poise of cinematography unusual (and for some out of place) in documentaries. Notturno, with the fewest words of any of his films, adds to the above a rejection of any sentimentality, which is bracing given the subject: the aftermath of the rule of Isis.
For some, Rosi's trademark is forging a path in between documentary and fiction film, and indeed he is the only director ever to win best picture for a documentary at a major film festival - twice: for Fire at Sea (2016) at the Berlin Film Festival and Sacro GRA (2013) at the Venice Film Festival. Notturno may be his most elusive, or amphibious, in form, especially in terms of its relation to fact and narrative.
Fire at Sea examined the flood of migrants from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa hoping to make their way into Europe. Thousands drowned (and still drown) each year making the crossing in wretched overcrowded boats. As he finished production, the migration crisis in Syria was exploding as millions fled civil war and the expansion of Isis. This new fountainhead of misery became his focus in Notturno.
Interior of the home of Ali.
We are taught that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, yet human behavior suggests the opposite is true. We do what we know. Knowing history is what causes us to repeat it. What does this mean for the representation of atrocity, or a documentary about life in the wake of Isis? Can a work of art provide some inoculation against its reoccurrence? Or is absolution a worthy enough goal: soothing the audience’s guilt at what happened to others with the illusion of having taken some sort of action?
Isis presents a unique challenge: it employed the very latest in digital high-tech to create a pre-literate totalitarian fundamentalist society in the vacuum created by the US invasion of Iraq. Far from hiding its savagery, it flooded YouTube with videos of slaughter and beheading to win recruits its cause.
Though it is wrong to see the rise of Isis as a freak occurrence in a chronically dysfunctional part of the world: the scapegoat politics that justified their extermination of those they considered heretics and their use of social media to staunch critical thinking and sow alternative truths are practices we see in more and more of the world, including the US.
A post-Enlightenment society would hope it could easily win a war of ideas against an effort to reinstate a 7th century theocracy. But we live in an age in which many of the world's leaders, Trump for a start, have achieved what Sartre described in his essay on anti-Semites. Don’t be misled by the fact their arguments are absurd and incoherent, he wrote, their goal is not to persuade with reason but to foul discourse altogether. Once they have won, reason itself loses all traction.
How can a documentary be effective in such conditions? What language can it use?
Add to the corruption of reason the atrophy of empathy and you have the needle this director had to thread with Notturno. Though human society may lack the ability to prevent atrocities, it easily resists incitements to suppress them.
The strategy adopted by Gianfranco Rosi in this film thus reflects a realism: he recognized that the traditional modes of his form - the rendering of horrors and injustice in words and images- are no longer effective. The ethics of representation have been exploded. Like a compass too close to a magnet, the polarity of reason is shot.
And thus, in Notturno’s submersion in the aftermath of the hell of the Isis caliphate, there is not a single diatribe against them, no analysis of their rule, not a clip of their atrocities.
Notturno is a documentary about the effects of military conquest and oppression without a single direct image of violence. The closest are videos of fighting watched by women soldiers on their phones at night, and images shown to mental patients intended to inspire them with moments of their country's history. Nor does the film feature a single direct comment by its subjects about their experience of the caliphate. It is because of this -not despite it- that it is so effective in rendering that reality.
In his study of the condition of Germany after WW2, On the Natural History of Destruction, W. G. Sebald uses the following expressions: "A world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms...", "an experience [in]capable of public decipherment...", "obliterated from retrospective understanding." For an entire generation no mention was made of the condition that dominated their lives.
Doubly relevant to us today, a survivor of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic remarked at the age of almost 100 that the resulting trauma was so severe that no one mentioned it once it was over. A girl at the time, she found this strange. For adults, however, it was simply too painful, and incomprehensible, to think about.
The survivors of the caliphate may have been traumatized into silence by the horrors they lived through and if the director wanted to capture the truth, this was it. Rosi’s approach was thus a response to both the condition of his subjects and the conditioning of his audience in the West: had the characters in Notturno described the horrors of life under Isis, their words would have little traction on a Western audience, whose empathy fatigue has been compounded by message fatigue - in addition to the discrediting of truth itself. Another approach was required.
Two scenes render the tension in the director’s approach between the urgency of the situation and the challenge of how to show it:
A child stands beside his drawing of hanged and beheaded bodies. He describes the figures to an art therapist. His trauma is concentrated in his powerful stammer as he haltingly describes the murders and torture that happened right in front of him.
The other scene contains the only direct reference to the current situation in the region: Two Kurdish soldiers discuss a recent attack in Kirkuk. “If Isis is not completely defeated,” one states, “the situation will return to how it was in 2014.”
Between these two scenes -the boy and his drawings and the soldiers talking war- Notturno is strung. This has happened, the boy says, narrating the atrocities he has drawn. This can happen again, say the soldiers – or is already happening.
There are two prongs to the warning latent in the film: do not let another rogue regime slaughter its targeted minorities; but also, do not imagine that the scapegoat politics practiced by Isis are very different from those practiced today by many global leaders.
The title, which in Italian means both nocturnal and nocturne, the musical form, would be the first indication of the director's approach. His focus is the off time, or in‑between time, the interstitial, not the unseen but the unwatched, the offstage, the outtakes. This is remarkable and perhaps even shocking in a culture like that of the contemporary West, fixated on the “take‑away" and "breaking news", too busy for any in-depth study, in need of summaries and instruction on what is important.
Notturno is a record of the process of seeing before knowing. It is the process of one consciousness and sensibility encountering a radically foreign world, discovering what it is drawn to, and then recording it from within. There is a spaciousness and patience in the shots that suggests the director suspected that he would be able to know what they contained, and what they might mean, only after viewing them later. The result is an uncanny balance between intimacy and distance. His impulse is to maximize the possibility of reception. And thus, the effect in many scenes that they that open further and further and generate a peculiar gravity of image, a sense of extreme resolution or depth of field.
The minds of the viewers are given more -and trusted more. They are neither told nor led. Each scene is set before them, intact, complete, uninterpreted, without music, comment, or indication. The goal is not to transform or wow or fool or move; the goal is to make us see, not feel. Seeing must come before feeling, as well.
The first viewing of Notturno produces the sense that this is a different mode of film. This impression deepens with the second viewing: that it is different both in its mode of presentation, and its effect on the mind. How?
The opening scene. It is dawn or maybe dusk, in a landscape that could be anywhere. A group of soldiers jogging in formation appears from behind us: thirty or forty men in military garb with no indication of rank or force or nationality. They run past and out of the frame. A few moments later, another group enters, and leaves. We think each is the last, but then another approaches. Finally, the frame is empty and quiet. We have seen two things: an army in training and the history of the region. No sooner did one war end than another began, army after army after army. And though we saw the last one leave, we are ready for the next. In fact, we have already been conditioned by this brief sequence to expect another formation, and we even think we hear it when we don’t.
The next scene moves in the opposite direction. Coming towards us, in a massive ageless concrete fortress, is a group of women in black dress with white head coverings, older, heavy in their movements but deliberate, fanning out into the space. Their faces are severe, intense but with unidentifiable emotions. The women appear like emanations from ancient Greek theater, Furies or figures from Lysistrata or The Trojan Women. One wails that her son was tortured and killed here as the others weep and daub their eyes. She says she feels the presence of her son in the walls, and stands with her back to it, arms extended, opening and closing, like a bird or a mantis sawing its wings against the surface. Then she stops. She feels nothing more of him.
Soldiers leave, mothers enter. Like gears of the same machine, the men cycle out and to the left, and the women rotate in from the right. As choreography it could not be more precise. Nor could the logic of the sequence: men fight and die; women give birth and grieve. Whatever the geography, the names, and the uniforms, this is the essence and always will be. The film frontloads nothing, explains nothing, imposes nothing.
The sequence does not feel like contemporary realism though it was shot in the last three years. The second scene could be modernist dance, or experimental theater. It feels like allegory, or fable, or even ritual, yet ultimately none of these applies. These modes are too abstract. The people shown are not symbols or stand-ins, or characters. Rather they have the concreteness of archetypes, elemental, eternal. Most simply put, they are themselves.
Mothers visiting prison where their sons were tortured and killed.
Consider how different the effect of these scenes would be with this tiny change: if Rosi had followed the convention common to both documentaries and feature films of inserting dates and location names before each scene: for example, 2018, Iraqi-Syrian border, or the Al Waadi prison, Zardiz, Iraq (invented). The mode of engagement would be completely different. The audience would be primed to fit each scene to the information given. As they began to build a narrative, they would see less and imagine -and project- more. The images would literally become secondary, supportive of a thesis advanced by the film. Instead, in Notturno all the viewer is given is a few lines that appear on the screen at the opening stating where the film was shot (along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon) and giving a 15-word sketch of the history of the area, culminating in Isis. Nothing more. To a certain extent Rosi recreates in the viewer his own experience of entering a reality that is completely foreign and opaque. This strategy carries through until the end and raises the question of what his goal is, especially given that this is a documentary. It is worth asking whether the film’s form and aesthetic innovation is more important than any political relevance.
The control of information is central to this strategy. Though drawn from another realm of film making, there is a useful parallel to Hitchcock’s focus on the role of information as the essential difference between suspense and mystery.
“Mystery is when the spectator knows less than the characters in the movie. Suspense is when the spectatorknows more than the characters in the movie.” The latter structure is true for tragic irony as well: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, for example, in which the spectators know as they watch the king working furiously to find the cause of the plague in his city that he is it.
In suspense, the viewers are told something about what they are about to see: for example, in five minutes a bomb will go off under the table where the characters are sitting. Knowing this, the audience will watch more closely and identify more intensely with the characters – as the audience does with Oedipus. Because of this, Hitchcock argues, suspense is fundamentally an emotional form. In contrast, in mystery the sequence is inverted: an event -a murder for example- is followed by a process of trying to figure out the cause, i.e., who the killer is.. Mystery then, Hitchcock argues, is an intellectual -and so for him, an inferior- form.
The contrast here is a crooked one: on the one hand, in Notturno, information, rather than being wielded strategically, is strategically withheld. The director presumes neither to know nor to explain nor to guide your reaction. What he shares with Hitchcock, though, is an intensity of focus, a charged gaze that conveys to the viewer that each frame contains something important if elusive. What is remarkable in Mr. Rosi’s film is the coupling of this visual intensity with the lack of a conventional narrative or thesis.
In Notturno, all information but the three-line history mentioned above is withheld. Some process of disclosure is clearly underway, but neither the subject nor even the mode of knowing that the film seeks to generate is ever made clear. There is no introduction or discussion of historical facts, or any facts really. There is no clarification of who the people are whose lives we have been brought into. The meager introductory information is not a seed that the subsequent material germinates. If anything, what follows serves to challenge the relevance of such information, period. More specifically, what the film achieves is a severing of the fact of living from the conventional modes of explaining or knowing about it. What we are presented with is mere life. The minute recalibration of the way we see people based on what we are told about them -who is Iraqi or Syrian, Shiite or Sunni, Christian or Muslim, Kurd or Arab- is rigorously avoided. It is easy to imagine what the effect would be of the frontloading Hitchcock embraces as the lever of suspense: the introduction of any of the above labels -Shiite and Sunni,etc- before any of the scenes, or in dialogue between the characters, would immediately alter the viewer’s relation to the film and its characters. It would create an inclination to see differences and even learn and incubate bias, to confirm that they do in fact underlie behavior and events – in the same way that they are invoked and manipulated to justify or foment violence. Remove the names and the borders and the motor of violence stalls.
Could it be that simple? In eliminating any such classification and manipulation, which would be considered the very currency of most studies of the region, Rosi seems to be after a different effect. There is no encouragement to reach any conclusion or thesis. The goal seems to be to produce a way of seeing, bare and uninflected, a neutral gaze, as if the director had decided that in this part of the world -or maybe everywhere- the more facts you know the less you understand.
Why then make a documentary if it so assiduously sidesteps every technique, convention, and desired outcome of the documentary form? What does Rosi hope to make happen in the minds of his audience? He must have some such goal, or he wouldn’t have chosen this part of the world for his subject. But even if we assume that the subject of the film is the effect of Isis on the people they ruled, what is he trying to do?
Interior of Ali's house.
What if there were two versions of Notturno: this, and then a perfect recreation, using sets and actors to produce a result that you could not tell apart -except for the credits? Would one affect you differently? How would we watch differently after reading, for example, “Starring Samira al Haqq as Neda Hosseini, the mother of…,” etc etc. How would the effect differ if we knew that the woman wailing about the murder of her son is being portrayed by an actress? The classification of fiction or documentary is also a form of frontloading, as is the common indication, “Based on real events.”
If you push this question further with Notturno, an intriguing possibility emerges: that if it were indeed a fiction, it would likely be criticized as flawed and ineffective for violating too many of the rules of narrative film making. For a start, there is no clear development. Most characters never reappear and many we do not even hear speak. There is no protagonist to follow. We know the inner thoughts or opinions of no one. It is not clear how the scenes are related to each other, or whether any of the characters are, from one scene to the next. The shifting of the mode of the scenes from the (seemingly) allegorical to the surreal to the clinical to the quotidian would be considered in a fiction film stylistically incoherent. And yet this anomalous assembly feels seamless and deeply coherent. Though its sequence follows a logic nearly impossible to identify, its build and culmination have extraordinary visceral power.
Rosi has played before at the border between documentary and fiction, and in fact may be the only director who has twice won best picture for a documentary, first for Sacro GRA and then Fire at Sea. In Sacro GRA, there were scenes in which the look, the pacing, and development were so aesthetically refined that it seemed hard to believe that they had occurred naturally, and had they been scenes in a feature film, they would have been praised as superbly designed and shot and performed. But that film consisted of portraits of the inhabitants of a particular place and this approach was both fitting and easily accepted. In Notturno, the subject is more complex and elusive. Indeed, when Mr. Rosi began the film, he was not at all clear what the subject would be. What drew him was the area’s reputation as a politically and religiously intractable powder keg where every effort at improving things made them worse. What more enticing subject for a documentary than a place that was universally misunderstood.
But it does not matter whether Notturno is considered a documentary or a fiction. Were it a fiction film, it would represent a radically free and bold approach to every element of the medium. And in fact, it scratches a lot of the itch itched by fiction films: atmospherics, mystery, exoticism, lush visuals, hypnotic pacing. But it is more surprising. It is not bound by the plausibility that narrative demands. The succession of disparate elements assembled in Notturno advances with the invariable precision of a natural process, like the crystallization of ice or the cooling of lava. What is captured is something beyond the reach of narrative, and free of the reductionism of narrative, which trains the viewer to see what fits and overlook what doesn’t. The parts remain free because their function in the sequence is never clear. Because they do not add up, they multiply. The fact that the viewer is always trying to figure out what this world is and how it works, the film’s ability to stimulate thought, and hopefully insight, continues through the last shot. Paradoxically the range of tones achieved and experiments conducted exceeds what would be acceptable in fiction, certainly commercial fiction. Notturno, you might say, has the feel of fiction but the authority of documentary, which in turn is what sanctions its greater freedom of form.
Mother listens to messages from her daughter, now dead, when she was an Isis captive.
The scene of the grieving mother is followed by the shot of a young man on a motor bike speeding along a highway. The only identifying feature of the landscape appears far off on the horizon: the flares of two oil wells. This man is unrelated to the reality of war. He has a gun, but it is a hunting rifle. He finds a small boat hidden in the reeds of a marsh, paddles into open water, tosses his decoys out and drifts, eyeing the sky for ducks. The sight of him immediately produces a sense of relief from the grimness of the previous scene, and a sense of the freedom of the open road and of pleasure and leisure, even normal life, which feels inconceivable in every other moment of this film. The decoys, floating like toy boats on the glassy water, accentuate this feeling. When the duck hunter reappears at the end, his function will be the same, though the need for the relief he provides will be even more intense. The decoys seem more significant than before. They stand out as if symbols, and symbols of the failure of symbols. They do not attract a single duck. They bring to mind the recurrent displacement and doubling that occurs during the film: the water pipe burble and machine gun fire, videos of fighting watched by soldiers guarding vast empty fields, children’s drawings of atrocities, patients performing roles from events that traumatized them. And now another strange and compelling double image, far off at the horizon of the orange sky are what appear like two suns, side by side, flaring intensely brighter in pulses, reflected across the orange water. They seem to tail him as he slides across the stream. They are from the flaring of gas from two distant oil wells. There is something fitting about the idea of two suns, as powerful a sign of the unnatural as could be imagined.
Is his function to provide release? The fact that he appears twice would indicate that he is considered an important part of the film, thought he does not speak and is unrelated to any other character. We know only that he hunts and has a motor bike. We do not see enough to feel for him, though we may feel with him. And this may be a clue to understanding Notturno’s approach. Most of the characters are silent. We see them but almost never hear them, and do not know what they think. The hunter scenes highlight a paradox central to Notturno: though there is neither a narrative nor a central character, it holds together and even builds.
There is another scene that is equally prominent yet more enigmatic in function and seems to float free at the center of the film: a horse standing in the middle of an intersection at night with traffic streaming around him. Were it a mere five seconds (already long in contemporary film) it would be a curious detail and little more, but the scene lasts a full 50 seconds. Initially the shot seems intended merely to give a sense of street life of the place, but it continues. The horse, lit sporadically by the headlights of passing vehicles, in the center of the frame, stares straight into the camera, the only time in the entire film anyone does. It looks right at us, and the effect is startling and produces a disarming engagement. The horse serves almost a proxy for the viewer, an acknowledgement of us, outsiders, peering in at this world, which is not only very foreign, but also strange and altered by its own standards. The horse, like us, cannot speak, is out of place, and continues to look back at us as the traffic winds around it, unbothered and unyielding. It is an animal, then, that provides the clearest instance of identification with the viewer -or maybe mirror- a sense of contact stronger than that with any of the humans, who neither look at the camera nor -for the most part- express their thoughts. At the same time, the horse is also an ancient presence, native to this region, a military vehicle and mode of transportation long before these tanks and cars were invented. The horse then is both outsider and ancestor, and, as described in one conversation by the director, oracle.
Another unusually prolonged scene comes later in the film and produces a similar unease. The effect is like a ship scraping a shoal, not stopping, but simply bumping against a sunken object then moving on: a warning of the presence of the bottom. A young girl in a session with an art therapist is describing horrific experiences she had during the occupation by Isis. The most traumatized of the patients, she speaks with her head laid sideways on her desk, describing how the soldiers would beat the children if they cried. “This is their blood,” she says of the spots of red in her drawing on her desk. The therapist looks back at the girl and neither says anything for a full 34 seconds. This not the common "money-shot" that lingers too long on a figure until she breaks down sobbing. Both girl and therapist are still and silent, but in this silence something happens. Is the therapist overwhelmed by the horrors these children describe to her? By her own horrors? Or is she thinking of something else entirely. Something trivial? Is this the recognition of “the unspeakable”? Or is there something she would say or do that she cannot because of the presence of the camera? In this unusual moment the film opens up to every possibility, including the possibility that it has stalled, or even that it will fail and simply end here.
It is as if the film becomes porous at these times. It is like the moment when an actor on stage forgets his lines and in that pause the reality of performance and the artifice of the play are bared and the sovereignty of the spectacle is called into question. At that point, anyone could step onto the stage and take over. With film, that is not a possibility, but the sudden instability introduced in moments like the horse scene has a powerful effect, though in film, as opposed to theater (with an experienced director at least) it must be assumed to be deliberate or it would have been edited out.
But if these moments are the ship scraping against the bottom, what is the bottom?
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud remarks that there is a place in every dream where the material is inextricably tangled, and no interpretation is possible. He refers to it as the dream’s “navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown.” It is a conduit to the unknown, but it is impassible, sealed up, a barrier that is also the origin. The implications and, better yet, the contradictions in these ideas produce an intriguing lens on Notturno. These “stop” moments described above suggest that the film contains material that cannot be interpreted or understood despite the fact that it is all actual documentary footage, i.e. “real life”.
If indeed Notturno does contain both the knowable and unknowable, there is no indication of which is which. Its gaze is absolutely uninflected, and yet at the same time rigorously formal and unwavering in the presentation of the image: a hypercertainty of focus on an unstable amalgam of material.
Whether film or dream, this bottom, or navel, would be the limit of the medium, the limit of communication, and representation itself. This is a more interesting problem for the documentary form than for fiction, more epistemological than aesthetic. What can we understand through observation of others? And what is the form of understanding that we expect and are used to? And what might be another mode of understanding?
The reference to dreams introduces the question of the division between the conscious and the unconscious and an intriguing if unanswerable question: can film capture the unconscious and if so, what would it look like? As opposed to behavior caused by unconscious forces, like tics or outbursts, are there passages of this film that could be said to capture the unconscious of this world: the surreal checkpoints where not a single figure ever passes, the sentries of the void, the streaming of cars over a flooded and collapsing road, horses racing down a deserted street at night? The lack of indications and commentary by the director is compounded by the lack of dialogue of the subjects, whose thoughts, as noted above, we simply do not know. Moreover, the only explicit information about the situation Notturno is presenting comes from either traumatized children patients of an art therapist, or traumatized psychiatric patients. The definitive wheat-from-chaff moment that the contemporary world is used to and demands is withheld. The film makes no attempt to separate out the types of material or to order it. It might even be claimed that the film shoots only the unconscious, and that this explains its unique mode of presentation, though that is a more catchy than helpful notion.
There is another scene that brings into a darker focus much of the discussion above. In the corridor of the psychiatric hospital, a clearly disturbed patient rocks from foot to foot, his back against the wall, while to the right intermittently visible in the slight gap between two double doors padlocked together a figure looks out, the red of a lit cigarette pulsing as the face appears and disappears in this narrow slit. Who is the second man? Was the director even aware of him as he filmed the patient, who had appeared before? Why are these doors padlocked? What is behind them? Is this a separate ward for a different kind of patient? Or another facility entirely? The presidential palace? A prison? It is a glimpse of another world hidden within this one and we see it for only these few seconds and never again. This is the navel itself, the thing we can never know, a warning to the viewer of the limits of the autonomy of film, a trapdoor, a watermark of unknowability.
The theme of war set out in the first two scenes then moves on to the only subject more extensively explored in literature and art: love. A man and woman on a rooftop at evening. The woman is smoking a water pipe. There is deep feeling between them. You hear the bubbling of the water pipe as she inhales, but there is another sound you hear as well: the distant report of machine guns. You watch more closely to separate one sound from the other and at points it seems as if the woman is generating both with the waterpipe. The playful idea is thus introduced that perhaps this is the true origin of the sound of weapons and even of war itself, that it is this woman in love who makes them both, as a game for her lover. This thought emerges naturally from this accidental alignment of sounds. It is surrealist but also convincing. And with this suggestion, this trick, the grim reality of war thumbnailed in the first two scenes is effortlessly transfigured. The grim truth of war is established - and then made to vanish.
The triangulation of these three scenes is tantalizing: the march of soldiers, preparing for combat; grieving mothers of fallen soldiers; a romantic encounter where the reality of war is undermined as a possibly mere illusion. Each is governed by the logic of displacement: the actual subject -war, the caliphate- is never shown. And in fact, in all of Notturno the only footage of fighting is in videos watched on cell phones or in a medley prepared for patients by their doctor in a psychiatric hospital. The only guns that we see go off are of hunters shooting birds.
This displacement is even more prominent in a scene towards the end that raises a question that grows increasingly insistent as the film advances: what is this present recorded here? We see the ruins of a part of a city, barely recognizable as buildings, rubble spilling out into the empty streets, the walls bulging, roofs slumped, no window or door recognizable as such. No function remains of shelter or protection. (This, too, is a form of transfiguration.) Over the projection of this landscape a female voice is heard. It is the recording of a cell phone message a mother is listening to from her daughter who had been captured by Isis. It becomes clear it is being played long after the fact, for the hundredth time or the thousandth time. This may be all she has left of her daughter, as suggested by the final message: “If they (Isis) know I'm in contact with you, they will kill me.” There is no present left in this present. It is a complete evacuation of time and place, the endless repetition of absence: the voice itself as a marker of absence just as the rubble marks the absence of the city that once thrived here. And it is another reminder of the role of women in war -to give birth and grieve- women themselves made into markers of absence.
Mother examines photo of her dead son.
The transfiguration of war through the water pipe is followed by another refraction of the subject. The next scene shows a troop of women soldiers returning to their makeshift barracks at dusk, unspeaking, with their weapons and gear. Where were they? The front? But if there is fighting, it must be far off as this scene is completely silent. The women remove their boots before entering and then kneel one by one around a kerosene heater also used to make their tea. They remove their helmets and, arrayed in two lines in the low light, begin to wind their long hair up onto their heads. It almost seems like a dance performance. One of the most archetypical features of female grooming, elegant, precise, ritualistic, yet utilitarian, you see six or seven hands winding at the same time, not a word spoken. They are all wearing fatigues, which they will sleep in, alongside their guns. Who are they? There is no indication. Though they are soldiers on active duty, the only view of fighting shown are on their phones. In the morning they report to their stations as sentries of an empty world where high on the ramparts they stand with their weapons surveilling wide vast plains on which not a single creature moves.
In the evening they roll out of their bunker in armed vehicles to storm a villa out in the middle of nowhere, a villa they will explore like a SWAT team, absolutely silent, speeding from room to room with their weapons out. This scene provides the only glimpse in the whole film of what instantly invokes a feature painfully absent in the film: normal life. We see a large two-story house with a front door framed by columns, curtained windows, handsome furniture, cabinetry, beds, all wrecked by earlier violence and lit only by the soldiers’ rifle-tip flashlights, but nonetheless clear markers of what once life had been like. In its isolation and irrecoverability, it feels like the exploration of a sunken wreck. And it is yet another monument of absence.
Though the scenes of the women soldiers seem almost like a surreal parable – like Valerio Zurlini's Deserto dei Tartari, filmed not so far away in Iran's Bam, of a fiercely outfitted outpost where the enemy has not been seen for decades- they are discreetly threaded into the rest of the film, and the reality of the area, by the remarks between two soldiers talking about the continued presence of Isis.
This scene, mentioned in the first part of this piece, is another example of the extreme attention paid to the organism of the film and how information is controlled: the two soldiers are talking to one another from cots on either side of a heater. The scene is casual and light-hearted. In fact, except for the look, it feels like a scene from a different film, casual and lighthearted. For one, these soldiers have not appeared before and will not appear again. Second, this is about the only time except for the scene of the lovers that we hear a real conversation. Third, the scene is comical, even a parody of soldier talk, and stands out especially given the somberness of the surrounding material: a machine gunner is complaining that he has a backache from always using his gun, accusing the driver of deliberately driving over potholes. But this clearly different scene is carefully insulated from the rest of the film: after it, the camera pulls back to show a night landscape in which the room with the soldiers is now tiny illuminated rectangle. The soldiers’ conversation has turned serious: Isis has attacked Kirkuk, and if they aren't stopped, they will have a resurgence. This tiny scene provides the only concrete orientation in Notturno to the current political reality, and no more is needed.
The two detailed presentations of the atrocities this area underwent occur in a way that avoids all polemics and ideological divisiveness: the first is in a psychiatric hospital, the second in an art therapy session with children.
Traumatized mental patients in a psychiatric hospital are putting on play about the political turmoil that probably led to their hospitalization. The play was written by the psychiatrist, who is also directing it. Handing his patients the script, he tells them that it has been written “in keeping with their abilities” – as accidental political commentary, it is too good to be true, hilarious and biting irony. In Marx’s formulation, history occurs first as tragedy and second as farce: this is a third form. The speeches are incisive and coherent and would work well as commentary in a traditional documentary but their effect here is the opposite. Delivered without affect or animation, what on paper would be cogent historical analysis becomes senseless, agonized bewilderment Only the doctor shows animation, waving his arms to energize the performance. Following the analysis becomes impossible, despite the fact we can simply read the subtitles. The effect is parody and tragedy at once, absurd and awful, Vonnegut sprouting in real life.
But is this effective? Isn’t this a failure to provide any insight or clarity as to the facts? Facts must still matter; in fact, don’t the facts matter even more in this age of conspiracy theory, “fake news” and scorn for experts. Notturno works differently on the intellect and the emotions compared to the more conventional documentary that seeks to establish causality and culpability, but with what result? If the goal is to change the thinking about an issue, or an attitude to a given area or people, an answer is elusive. For a person appalled by the atrocities of the Isis caliphate and seeking to make sure it can never happen again, would this film be more effective? Is it trapped in its formal and aesthetic strategy? Or is this strategy what is effective, because it produces a subliminal activation of thought? Though what effect has a film ever had on actually changing the course of political action? Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers? Burn’s Vietnam? Griffith’s Birth of a Nation? Stalin’s agitprop? Being There? Bambi?
The history play in the mental hospital culminates in the screening of footage of recent events set to a melancholy Arabic song. These are the only scenes in the film of actual historical events, set like a conventional documentary within this one. It is a medley of rousing scenes of political tumult and passion, the toppling of statues, buildings being stormed, crowds fleeing - the very marrow of history. At the end, the camera zooms in on the faces of the audience of patients. The comparison with us watching Notturno is inevitable (another scrape against bottom). Lit by the flickering light from the projector, the faces appear in a distorted chiaroscuro, monumental, totemic, like giant marble Roman heads. In a conventional documentary, we would see tears in the eyes of the patients looking on. In a conventional documentary, there WOULD BE tears in the patients' eyes. Here, though, as elsewhere in the film, the emotions of the people are inscrutable, inaccessible. The easy play of feeling common in the comfortable world is not possible here. In the close ups of one face after another, everything leads us to expect and even want to find intense emotion, but there is not even a quivering lip. This sequence may be the most rigorous and visceral rendering of life in this place: it is, to us, and to this camera, unreachable and unknowable.
What could possibly follow a scene of such compression? The next shot is of a sleeping baby, snoring. The baby, the future, the next in line, still too young to feel the weight of this world, life as sheer promise, all beauty and hope, and projection.
Drawings from art therapy session with children of life under Isis.
The second dose of history is administered in an art therapist’s session with children traumatized by life under Isis. They are talking about their drawings of the horrors they experienced. Their work is taped onto the wall the way it would be in a typical school. In fact, this is the first setting in the film that could be straight out of the contemporary West: a modern classroom with new student desks and a teacher in casual dress, only the images on the walls are of executions, beheadings, and amputation, as beguiling in their style and they are horrific in their clarity and detail. The narrations do not produce -or even express- outrage and hatred. What is presented is more submerged, the unsorted precursor of emotions. A boy with a powerful stammer identifies one picture as Isis chief al Baghdadi, whom he probably saw in person. (He was killed in October 2019.) The stammer gives his narration an unbearable intensity. The boy stares at the image for a long time, tilting his head increasingly to one side in a movement inexplicable and alarming. Here too, a revelatory stillness, or scrape against the bottom, gripping but not emotional, clinical almost, and unreadable.
And then the next scene: a vast and barren prison yard. The gates open, and there flows slowly in what appear first like petals swept in a stream and then we see are men in orange jumpsuits, the very ISIS soldiers who committed the atrocities just described, but now neutralized, transfigured. As if part of a process governed not by individual psychology but rather laws of fluid dynamics, they slowly disperse throughout the space and mix, mere objects, seemingly identical. The scene, despite the fact we know what these men have done, is beautiful: the dun color of the building and yard, the moss green of the entrance portal and the guards’ uniforms, the heart-shaped loops of concertina wire at the bottom of the frame. But there is nothing elegiac, stirring, or comforting about this scene; it has the beauty of mathematics, of a machine The shot captures the complete process of the entrance of the prisoners into the yard, from the very first to the last let in. It has both a forensic completeness and an epic intensity. As the inmates begin to circulate throughout the space, an incongruous image comes to mind, triggered by the orange jumpsuits that reach only mid-ankle and the overlarge black flop flips they all wear, which give their walk a shuffling bounce: they resemble clowns. Tragedy undergoing its metamorphosis into farce.
And then their exercise break is over, and they are wound back into their cell, single file, each shuffling with his hands on the shoulders of the man in front like a jointed insect of infinite length. The entire scene passes without a word. These shots produce another transfiguration -not a redemption but rather a metabolization- of the horrors described -and relived- by the stuttering boy. These men, who decapitated people and told children to eat the severed heads, have been deindividualized, subsumed into an organism, neutralized by a natural justice, like a body in the ground. They are part of a process that goes on long past this scene and that began long before it. It is as if, like a flip card animation, human behavior, or history, were captured at its native, natural speed and frequency, even, undistorted, fully visible, in its natural habitat, pluripotent, seen as if for the first time.
The effect brings to mind a new experimental treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder of American soldiers, who are given a dose of the recreational drug ecstasy and are guided through their traumatic memories by a male and a female therapist over eight hours. The process is said to produce the feeling in the patients that they are seeing the traumatic events from a great distance, which dilutes and relieves their connection as individuals to the experiences that produced the trauma. Many say they feel able to forgive themselves, not only for what they have done, but for what was done to them.
Notturno ends with an image of the boy whose story serves as the closest thing to a center it contains. The sequences from his life are set out with the episodic clarity and sparseness of the stations of the cross, shot as if at the point where myth crystallizes off day-to-day life. The room he lives in with his mother and six siblings is like a stage set, rough unadorned masonry walls. There is never an exterior shot. It is always, or always seems to be, night. There is no window, no front door. We never know what is near it - a town or forest or ruin or bunker. The boy is the provider. He sleeps on the couch, the rest on the floor. We hear only one word from him in the entire film, his name, when a hunter hires him along a road to retrieve shot birds. The others speak even less. The boy’s face has a grave stillness and intensity, severe, forbidding; young and ancient both. Only the eyes are alive, constantly scanning the sky, as if for prey, or god, or escape. It is a face that could have been lifted from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The ending of the film feels sudden. Its vast sweep of intricate realities culminates in a closeup on this single face. Awakened before dawn by the mother who never sleeps, the boy rises and is seen next along a road in the dark. We have no sense of how he got here, whether he walked a mile or ten. He waits hoping a passing hunter will hire him. We realize only now that the central fact of his household -there is no father- will never be explained. Though he is the character we see the most of in Notturno, we know him no more than the other characters. There are none of the common reference points by which we “relate" to people, what they feel or think. He is familiar but not known
The final image recalibrates and orders all that has come before it. All of the elements of the film come to reside in this final image of the boy. A hero-antihero, an everyman, the archetypical provider standing by the archetypical road, his life is governed by inexorable events. This role was dealt to him. The initial procession of soldiers and then of grieving mothers, and their combination in the battalion of female soldiers defending the empty horizon, are now crystallized in this face. It is a movement from the abstract and mythical to the personal and individual, and possibly a nod to the tradition of Italian neorealism that Rosi is descended from. In fact, it is as if this final image belongs to another film and way of making film, as if Notturno has delivered the boy into another world. He is the culmination of the preceding scenes and their characters and is the first step beyond them, though there is no indication of whether what awaits is better or worse, or more of the same.
The lockdown may have worked a strange magic on geography. When normal life was humming at its full rpms, the Middle East with its chronic problems seemed like another planet, absolutely foreign, a hell to contrast with the Western heaven where normal, day-to-day life was impossible. The catastrophe in Beirut is the most recent addition to this view. But now that that life has been put on hold by the pandemic, and hundreds of millions of people look out at what used to be their normal life and the things and activities they were convinced they liked and needed, and are no longer sure they want them back. And in this state of temporary alienation, they can look into a film like Notturno with greater attention and discernment. Relieved temporarily of the sense of anxiety and constant rush that are the fuel of everyday life, people are more able to recognize the underlying structures of life and ask what's worth it and what’s not. It isn't so much that this film would let people of the modern West see themselves in these people from this ravaged part of the world. Rather, the mode of seeing that is drawn into you as you experience this film leads you to see differently even when you turn away from it. It is a new mode, perhaps perceptual, perhaps philosophical, perhaps emotional. But possibly clearer.
The photographs that accompany this essay were taken by the author during the New York Film Festival outdoor pandemic screening of Notturno at the Queens Drive-In on October 6, 2020. Notturno is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and Vudu.