Gianfranco Rosi’s film “Notturno” holds landscapes of trauma and displacement up to the light, relying on unrestrained silences and soaring images to document refugee life on the borders of Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon. Rosi filmed an array of quotidian vignettes over a three-year period and assembled them into a piercing visual journey with sparse dialogue and no narration. The film is not a work of narrative or journalism, but rather an elaborate photo documentary.
It is not an easy watch. Rosi shows his subjects in moments of extreme vulnerability, bringing his camera into spaces of profound loss. A woman whose daughter is being held hostage by ISIS listens to ransom messages in a dark room — her face lit up by a cellphone as tears fall down her face. Young children process their experiences in trauma therapy sessions. The urgency of this humanitarian crisis is without question, but it is worth questioning the gaze through which it is viewed and portrayed: Rosi uses the extreme vulnerability of his subjects to lend structure and tension to an otherwise meandering narrative.
It is tempting to search for patterns across the film. In a room riddled with bullet holes, an old woman calls out to the spirit of her son at the site of his execution. She describes how he was beaten and killed. Without him, she must care for her grandchildren alone.
Several sequences later, a young boy, barely in his teens, goes hunting, fishing and hitchhiking for work wherever he can to provide for his seven younger siblings. His father is conspicuously absent.
In yet another sequence, a fowler sits in a small canoe, hunting ducks in a reedy wetland. It is dark out on the water and torrents of flame burn in the distance, lighting up the sky. Is there a family waiting for him at home — his children, his old mother? Or is he as untethered as the decoy ducks that float on the lurid water?
Patterns offer reassurance, but this is not a reassuring film. If there is a story being told in “Notturno,” it is one of creeping terror. ISIS is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. In the quiet rubble of bombed-out buildings. In the sound of distant artillery beyond city walls. In the dialogue of a play being put on in a small community theatre. In the drawings of children going through trauma-therapy — sketching out beheadings, ethnic cleansings and the destruction of villages in colored pencil.
There is no live footage of the war against ISIS, but its impacts are widespread. Sinister is the enemy whose presence is felt even in its absence. There is little to no graphic violence shown on screen, but there are many times when the emotional tenor makes it difficult to watch.
If there is a criticism to be made of “Notturno,” it is that the film’s most powerful symbols of hope are haphazardly dispersed in the sequencing. In one scene, a man dressed in white walks through dark city streets with a drum, filling the night with his beautiful singing voice. Before this we see him being lovingly dressed by his wife. Before that, we see them together on a date night, smoking hookah on a rooftop overlooking the city. The wife inhales and the sound of the rattling water pipe is reminiscent of sounds from other sequences of construction work and gunfire. She is dressed all in black — a stark contrast to the long white suit her husband will wear as he sings through the streets later that night.
“It will rain on us,” he says, glancing up at the sky.
“Let it rain,” she replies. “Is there anything more beautiful than the rain?”
In a film of traffic careening over flooded highways, children and old women trudging through a refugee camp where the roads have turned to mud and troops drilling on wet asphalt in anemic dawn light, the answer to this rhetorical question, like everything else in Rosi’s film, is hard to hold.