Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
I missed Gianfranco Rosi’s 2016 film Fire at Sea, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. But I did see El Sicario, Room 164 (2010), a profile of a dangerous enforcer for Mexican drug cartels, a movie that consists of a man being interviewed in a motel room—with a hood over his face. No dramatic re-enactments, no animation, just a faceless man talking about a terrifying existence; as I said in my review, it “plays like the scariest 60 Minutes episode you never saw.”
Rosi can get a lot out of very little, in other words. His new one, Notturno, is haunting. The filmmaker spent three years in the Middle East, mostly along the borders in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, with a special focus on people who have had their worlds torn apart by ISIS. After an opening title card, the film has no background or narrative, but its visions are compelling. Rosi knows when he has something good: The opening sequence, for instance, sees groups of soldiers drilling past the camera, each new group startling us with its loud marching and guttural chanting. Shortly after, a group of female soldiers sits in a rectangle around a space heater, their work for the day apparently finished, and they undo their hair, a curiously moving sight.
As the movie goes along, we see a few people more than once; a boy who makes money going out with hunters to act as a gofer, and a theatrical troupe in a psychiatric hospital, gamely working on a play about the toll of colonialism (a style of performance that seems the exact opposite of what Rosi does in his film). There’s also a duck hunter who rides his scooter out to the edges of the wetlands, clambers in his canoe, and goes night-shooting. Except this nocturnal Nimrod has his quiet pastime interrupted by the periodic pop-pop-pop of what sounds like machine-gun fire, as the sky beyond him spreads out in vivid orange from oil derricks in the distance.
Those are not the only shots in the film that glow with strange beauty. But the horror is never far away, especially in the middle of Notturno, as Rosi’s camera observes children who are in therapy from the ordeal of being around ISIS. The plainness of these scenes is chilling: kids recalling torture and murder, and drawing sticklike figures to depict the bloody scenes. Did they make those drawing for therapy, or for the movie? I don’t know. But the images are a crude approximation of what Rosi does with his film—capturing trauma in images, the better to make some sense of it.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.