Thu. Oct 22nd, 2020

TIFF Review: ‘Notturno’ doc highlights the aftermath of war told through the eyes of those who lived it

Plot: Filmed in several parts of the war-torn Middle East, NOTTURNO documents the aftermath of war through the eyes of civilians whose lives have been shattered by it.


Gianfranco Rosi’s signature style of carefully observing his subjects and capturing the very minute details that could have otherwise been overlooked continues in NOTTURNO, a harrowing documentary that takes a closer look at the aftermath of war, rather than war itself. Unlike his previous outings, this is a less coherently calibrated film, perhaps intentionally so, but remains an important film that deserves recognition and international attention.

Just as chaotic as the daily lives of those who witnessed some of the Middle East’s most brutal war, NOTTURNO opts for a dispersed approach: a number of stories of more than one subject are told here and there, interspersed with footage from war-torn areas across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Those places are not overtly named across the film, but it doesn’t really matter – after all what brings those people together is the pain, the loss and the aftermath of living through hell – and trying to piece themselves together amidst a future that is so bleak and difficult to look forward to.

Among the film’s subjects is a young boy who has witnessed the horrors of ISIS. Now in a children’s care center, he attempts to talk about what he has seen by bursting out a few words to his teacher and drawing what he simply cannot erase from his already bruised memory. Not very far away, another young boy finds himself the new breadwinner of his family, and wits by the road every single day in hopes of finding work. Back in the city, a mental health institution receives a number of war victims. In an attempt to raise their spirits, the local doctor chooses some of them to act out a play that will be shown to a crowd we never get to see. 

These are some of the stories that NOTTURNO carefully observes. Several scenes of silence are weaved between them – but this is not the silence of serenity and peace, it’s that of desperation and hopelessness. What seems to be calm ends up being quite menacing, simply because the aftermath of war is as scary as when the events themselves unfold. Unlike when one witnesses unspeakable atrocities during the day and longs for a night in which they can take shelter, the characters in NOTTURNO do not find solace or comfort at night. Because even when they’re finally, or temporarily safe, what they’ve witnessed continues to haunt them. The silence of their nights is only broken by their aching hearts. And those empty streets around them, full of ruins and shattered houses, are aching too.

Verdict: There’s a lot of silence in NOTTURNO, but it speaks volume. A film that does not seek to document war atrocities but rather to observe their aftermath, it is an earnest look at those who have been left behind, those whose hearts are bleeding even if they seem to have healed. Time heals, but in the case of NOTTURNO’s subjects, it only deepens the wound.

Grade: B+

This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival.

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