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Authorship in the Frame: Gianfranco Rosi's "Notturno"

With his latest film, Gianfranco Rosi explores what the documentary cinematic image might accomplish.
Eric Hynes
Gianfranco Rosi's Notturno is exclusively showing in many countries starting March 5, 2021 in MUBI's Luminaries series.
Nonfiction films tend to exhibit anxiety over their subjective engagement with the factual world. It’s a tension that makers often feel compelled to resolve, or assuage. Some lean into a journalistic tone or style, gathering witnesses and evidence, telling a cogent story and presenting it soberly, burying or at least deemphasizing subjective choices. Others signal or admit their own interventions by including themselves in the frame, or by embracing an unconventional, conspicuous formal approach, eager to wriggle free from outsized expectations of objectivity. Either way the work is, at least in part, defined by this dialectic. Accepting that subjectivity is not only a given but a necessity, the very source of an artist’s power and mandate, the tension shifts to what the artist chooses to emphasize—what he or she is drawn to, what he or she privileges, and consequently what morality or narrative or history or consciousness is implied and conveyed by that privileging. Rather than objective vs. subjective, it’s about choosing what to specify. This shot, this gesture, this tone, this cut, this face in this space. Each film signals its own specificity, expresses its own set of priorities towards honoring the real.
With each of his films to date, Gianfranco Rosi has reconsidered what the cinematic image might accomplish. Never satisfied with merely capturing, his camera is a consistently expressive tool. From his peripatetic debut, Boatman (1996), to his Slab City-set follow-up, Below Sea Level (2008), through the miraculously spare El Sicario, Room 164 (2010), and the disparate Italian films Sacro GRA (2013) and Fire at Sea (2016), the Eritrean-born, Italy and Turkey-raised, Italian and American citizen Rosi is tellingly drawn to characters and places of disputed provenance. And the qualities of his cinematic expression similarly careen from minute to magisterial, observational to gonzo, responsive to culture, environment, and subject—be it injustice, deviance, death, or the everyday—while remaining self disciplined and committed to the integrity of every observed moment. In El Sicario he’s prevented from either depicting his subject or filming beyond a hotel room, yet rather than defined by absence the work is dense with feverish hand sketches, stories, explanations and physical gestures—it’s austere in premise but activated in practice.
With his latest film, Notturno, Rosi takes what might be considered a fragmentary approach to documenting the border regions of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon. Yet his sequences arrive not like fragments, tenuously connected by ellipses, but like full realizations. A fowl hunter drives to a remote spot in the wetlands. He locates a skiff previously stowed under branches, steers it to deeper water, then deftly empties one boot and then the other as he enters the boat and rows off. The sun sets and he keeps watch into the night, as ominous red halos interrupt the horizon. It lasts less than five minutes and is a work unto itself. His shots can evoke classical paintings with their exquisite framing, lighting, and coloring, but they’re rendered sculptural with camera movement and editing, and complicated by a commingling of classicism with the present moment. We may or may not return to this location, to these subjects or to this vision, but the sequence is always a complete idea regardless.
Locations aren’t announced with text, signaling what level of specificity Rosi is choosing to privilege. In Notturno, national borders that have been violently imposed over the last century are left implicatively vague, while the people who live astride them exist vividly. (We do see soldiers patrolling some of these borders, but it’s not clear which direction or which threat they’re facing—it’s the spaces they occupy, and the abstract spaces they gaze upon, that compel us.) The viewer is left to draw their own map based on context and detail—the flag on a uniform, the dictator in a highlight reel, accents and dialects and customs for those familiar with the region—or spend the duration contemplating when or if it matters. (The itinerant artist’s prerogative is evident.) The geographical distance traveled between these territories is never great, which may be discerned or inferred, but is never explicit. What’s explicit is the hopelessly muddy terrain surrounding a refugee camp, and also, separately, along the road to a hunting ground. What’s explicit is a boy hunter cleaning his rifle in a single room apartment in the early morning, and also, separately, a female soldier doing the same in her barracks. What’s explicit is soldiers marching past the camera in unison in the twilight, and also, separately, men in bright red uniforms filing past the camera, hands forward on the shoulders in front of them, returning to their prison cells. These shots are never fast to one another, they’re rhymes placed at a remove, each distinct and specific yet echoing across the land and film.
Rosi’s camera is often stabilized on a tripod, departing from the more common field method of destabilized, voracious handheld work. While the stakes are contemporary, the aesthetic divide, and its paradoxical ethical implications, stretches back to the 19th century. The handheld cameraperson’s impressionistic imagery connotes a “you are there” immediacy, but also a transience. Rosi’s pre-impressionistic images reflect careful study, elegant expressions of moments that have been informed by hours, days, and years of preparation. Notturnowas filmed over three years, which is evidenced not in the passage of time but rather in the knowledge informing every shot. The clouds look this particular way above this field. The wind attacks this particular tree this particular way during a rainstorm. A drummer makes his silence-piercing devotional rounds through town at this particular hour at night.
So evocative are Rosi’s images that their placement in the film’s structure might not seem particular at first. But as with Fire At Sea, his Oscar-nominated, Golden Berlin Bear-winning previous film, there’s a gradual and purposeful cycling through, around, and back to characters and locations. Where Fire At Sea was more of a two-hander, toggling between a local fishing family and refugees arriving on the shores of Lampedusa, Notturno rotates unpredictably among characters throughout the region, sometimes staying in one place through a night, other times handing off associatively. And yet over time, images and milieu are revisited and faces become familiar. The young boy who rises before dawn to stand by the side of the road soliciting work from passing hunters. The troop of Kurdish female soldiers who relax around heat lamps when not peering out of proscenium-like turret holes. The ad-hoc group of patients at a “Psychiatric Ward” who practice and perform a play-within-the-film decrying the evils unleashed upon the region. We rejoin them without expectation of progression, albeit attentive to larger communal pictures coming into view. Somehow, Rosi never tips into characterization—his recent work has a Bressonian commitment to formidable faces and bodies and actions unbent by interpretive montage or imposed narratives.
At the center of the film is a ten-minute sequence that stands alone in terms of scope and style—its milieu and subjects do not recur. Visually unadorned and atypically at length, very young children speak to a psychiatrist about what they endured and witnessed at the hands of ISIS. (It’s never signposted, but being part of the Yazidi community is mentioned.) The terror and inhumanity they describe is unbearable, and yet here these children are, bearing it. Aground here at the midpoint, the bluntness of the sequence feels off, possibly exploitative, and suspiciously unsettling. It’s meant to stick out. It’s meant to upset. And the presence of the therapist implies a level of care behind the scenes that Rosi could underscore, reassuring the audience, but that’s not a specificity he’s choosing to privilege here. Whatever conditions may have encouraged or protected these children, it’s their witness, and our witness of the trauma they’re carrying, that matters. It’s like a tear in the middle of a Lucio Fontana canvas— irreconcilable, irreparable, and recasting everything before and after its rupture. In turn, the same evil that has terrorized these children lurks at the edges of Rosi’s frames, at the vanishing points of his landscapes, in the minds and memories of subjects less willing or able to talk.
After offering oral testimonies, the children illustrate their experiences and tack the documents to the classroom wall. These, too, are horrifying to see and discern. But there’s also power in the form. Authorship in the frame. Expression in the color and line, emotion in the rendering, truth in the specificity. One of the young artists interprets in detail what the image depicts. He’s slowed by a stutter, yet eager and confident in the telling. There’s power in choosing what to show, how to tell.
And so it’s another day in the muck for the young hunter, the refugee, the soldier, the prisoner. The hardship and grief is unrelenting, the injustices manifold and unceasing. What might an image express of this? What might a camera on a tripod that’s sinking into the same muck make of what appears before it? Rosi’s images don’t support an answer, but they do persistently, masterfully endeavor to find out. Dwelling before this, here, now, there’s a commitment that’s not just aesthetic but also moral.

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