I remember very well when I watched Gianfranco Rosi’s previous film, Fuocoammare, in 2016. I was very impressed by the contrast between the peaceful life in Greek Lampedusa and the dramas happening right behind the copper. The clash of the enormous importance of European culture and history – of being in a place where one, in a tangible way, can touch one of the foundations of Europe, the ruins of antiquity – with one of the most acute civilization disasters in the history of mankind, the migration crisis. With people from flesh and blood who die just under the quiet threshold, under the inattentive, dimmed by comfortable ignorance, closed eyes of the privileged.
Rosi builds his documentary with a great visual reverence, devoting most of his time to search for beauty in real-life drama. But it was precisely this contrast between the artistic eye, the beauty of sublime frames and the dirt, disease and death lurking just around the corner that involuntarily refuted the myth of Europe’s holiness and greatness.
A similar strategy in Rose’s latest film, Notturno, doesn’t work. The director spent 3 years traveling with his camera on the Middle East coast, along the borders of Iraq, Kurdistan, Lebanon and Syria, searching for equally beautiful images, silently portraying the lives of the inhabitants – burdened with constant fear for their existence and longing for those who left them.
The life of the film’s protagonists – despite the fear accompanying their stories – resembles the peace of the inhabitants of Lampedusa more than the suffering of their refugee relatives on the other side of the sea. The lack of visualized contrast pushes the trauma to the imaginary sphere – and the same happens with the stories told by the characters. It may even seem that this is told in the past tense, that the Middle East in Notturno is not a place of war and constant catastrophes, but a theater evoking the dead, reviving these tragedies.
The style of aesthetic documentary staging and speaking about important matters from the safe pedestal of Europe’s cultural heritage is an artistic arrogance. Of course, it’s not about grabbing the camera and rushing where people die from gunfire. It’s not about turning away from viewers in an artistic haughtiness and creating a work so elitist, devoid of the director’s control over the image, that it is obscure and inaccessible. It’s also not about abandoning the original style – although maybe it is worth rethinking and using it for the benefit of the story? Rosi falls into the trap of his own style – the aestheticism in Notturno is more important than the people and their stories.
Rosi’s camera is a forein eye, a gaze that does not match the Middle Eastern realities marked by constant catastrophes. The image of the Italian director is closer to a poetry film than a socially engaged documentary-reportage. Does this mean that Notturno should be completely rejected? Rosi is still a creator with an excellent eye for the frames, but in order to be able to fully enjoy this aesthetically directed spectacle, we should probably forget about the context and explore this world in isolation from culture and history.