Every so often a movie comes around that really messes you up. The last time I saw a documentary that kept me up at night was 2013’s The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous’s portrayal of the horrors committed on a populace in the name of ethnic cleansing left me so shaken I didn’t know what to do. Yes, a movie can do this to you.
Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Broulliard (Night and Fog) managed to open a glimpse into the abyss in his portrayal of Nazi atrocities in barely 30 minutes of running time. Now, Gianfranco Rosi, whose work should be commended for his bravery, presents Notturno. His documentary posits itself as an observer, much in the way of the works of Frederick Wiseman. We never get interviews; we only observe its subjects, some broken, some jailed, some haunted, some hopeful, as they move about through life while the distant sounds of armed conflict pepper the soundtrack.
Threads emerge. Women, entering the prison where their sons were tortured and killed by ISIS. One mother’s pain is so palpable: she mourns the loss of her son, and even attempts, it seems, to absorb her son’s final moments before an untimely death while wondering, “Where was God in all this?” Another boy, Fawaz, narrates to his teacher the atrocities committed by ISIS, his drawing an abstract composition of death and horror. As the camera continues to roll his speech will turn into a stutter as he attempts to vomit forth all that he has witnessed. Another thread depicts a fisherman hunting for food at night while the oil fields burn, lighting up the night as though it were sunset. Yet another shows the Peshmerga female soldiers as they go throughout their days and nights, guarding the fort, conducting night surveillance, or simply watching violent videos on their iPads while others drink tea. Another sequence, still, depicts a mother having to listen to frantic messages left by her daughter who has been captured by ISIS. Most notably, a teen imparts lessons to hunters, but one scene left me wondering if there was something vaguely sexual about the exchange.
One interesting sequence lasts only about five minutes. In it, we see what seems to be ISIS prisoners, all dressed in orange, moving about their cell yard. It is disconcerting, to say the least, knowing the horrors they have inflicted, and how now they’ve been reduced to mere orange figures moving in a manner not un-similar to the laborers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), only to be clumped together into one giant cell in which barely any light filters through.
This is an extremely harrowing movie that I had to view in portions because at times it was a bit much to take in one sitting. Mind you, Notturno is a little over 90 minutes long in length not counting credits. It’s just that to see a nation attempting to live in a weird sense of bruised normalcy under an unforgiving sky while nursing so many scars, so much death and destruction left by a horrendous militant group, was almost a litmus test in endurance. My only complaint with the movie is that while Fawaz’s (and other children’s) stories were necessary to be told, in the long sequence where he is clearly stuttering and spitting his words out as his story becomes more and more frenzied, why did no one break the fourth wall and come to comfort him? It seemed a bit too exploitative.
Notturno won’t be for everyone’s taste and should be approached with a strong stomach and a sense of detachment in order to process it all. It is available on most streaming platforms.