MUBI’s presentation of Notturno (2020) segues into a short conversation, a welcome addition to their recent exclusive releases. On a split screen, Alejandro González Iñárritu starts to ask the director, Gianfranco Rosi, a question along the lines of “What was your vision?” Three minutes later, he’s still asking it. It feels like an unintended tribute to someone whose films don’t come with clear narrative pathways or guiding lights. Iñárritu is one of the great directors of his age, but the effort of pinning down Rosi seems to briefly overwhelm him.
Notturno, Rosi’s sixth feature, is particularly disorienting. Shot for three years in Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Lebanon and premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, it moves from one country to another without so much as an intertitle. The entire Middle East becomes one large conflict, a frayed map of sorrow where time has erased boundaries. It’s a bold choice, though a contentious one. By removing the specificity of the conflicts, which range from attacks by Western “peacekeepers” to atrocities by ISIS, Rosi is asking us to react to human suffering without context. Yet, Westerners seeing the Middle East as a monolithic whole is the source of a lot of the region’s problems.
Rosi doesn’t use voice-over, and on-screen text is usually limited to the start of his films. His refusal to point the viewer in a certain direction, though, is at odds with the control he himself exerts over the narrative. Even when he stretches a scene, it’s done for a reason, like the mysterious static shot of a horse standing in a city street at night, staring at the camera, in Notturno. He shoots his own films, working with a tiny crew. His images, impeccably framed and fiercely beautiful, aren’t what most viewers would associate with “documentary” (“Tarkovsky on hormones,” as Iñárritu put it). Notturno is full of these: lovers sharing a shisha, unperturbed by sounds of gunfire from the city below; an all-women militia huddled around a kettle for warmth; a tree bent over by buffeting winds, watched by a boy who’s weathering his own storm.
In the years since the Varanasi-set Boatman (1993), Rosi has become a leading voice in non-fiction film. He’s one of the only documentary makers to have won the top prize at the Venice and Berlin film festivals. He found his particular style—immersive, composed, character-driven—with Below Sea Level (2008), about flatland squatters in California. El Sicario, Room 164 (2010) followed, an interview with a masked hitman recounting his crimes; an outlier in his filmography. He broke out with his next film, Sacro GRA, which won at Venice in 2013, and followed that with Fire At Sea, winner at Berlinale in 2016.
Sacro GRA is named for the ring road that circles Rome. The film, his first feature in his native Italy, took him two years to shoot. He found his subjects in the people who live just off this road, and who work on it: a gallery of eccentrics that includes a man who rents out his palatial villa for shoots and a botanist consumed with saving palm trees from weevils. Rosi doesn’t prettify their rough existence, showing instead how it’s leavened by humour and moments of joy, whether it’s eating a melon or plotting perfect revenge against insects.
Rosi’s next film, Fire At Sea, was also shot in Italy—on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. It is, I feel, the strongest of all his films, tying together his character work and image-making with a narrative focus absent in his other work. The film contrasts the life of Samuele, a 12-year-old boy, with those of the refugees from Africa who routinely wash up or are rescued by the authorities. Interspersed with Samuele’s days spent practising his slingshot, visiting the ophthalmologist, bossing his friend, and chatting with his father and grandmother are scenes of the refugees packed in boats, lined up and searched, huddled in masses at immigration centres.
There is no direct connection between the boy and the refugees, except perhaps the doctor who treats Samuele for a minor ailment and the immigrants for life-threatening ones. The juxtaposition works precisely because of its impreciseness—a boy whose biggest worry is his lazy eye could never be compared to someone who has just travelled thousands of miles in a rickety boat, except that they happen to be in the same geographical space. In one scene, the radio station gives news of a new boatful, with several dead, then switches to news of an upcoming interruption in power supply. But Rosi isn’t pushing us to feel derision for the relatively privileged: Rather, he regards the precocious Samuele (a better protagonist than any actor could have been) with the same interest as the young refugee who looks straight down the lens of the camera, like the horse in Notturno.
There are other recurring motifs across these films. Dogs wander in and out of the frame. There are men in boats of all sizes and purposes. The golden cellophane-like sheets the refugees drape in Fire At Sea are also in Sacro GRA, offered to a protesting patient in an ambulance. There are moving scenes with elderly people: the grieving mothers in Notturno, the talkative old man and his patient daughter glimpsed from the window in Sacro GRA, the kindly grandmother in Fire At Sea. Rosi’s films usually come in under the two-hour mark. Yet they feel endlessly expansive, a wealth of experiences and emotions distilled, without judgement or explanation.
Notturno, Sacro GRA and Boatman are on MUBI.