Applying a minute and painterly eye to ordinary lives encircled by much larger circumstance — be it a motorway as in 2013’s Golden Lion-winning “Sacro Gra,” or the seaborne migrant crisis as in 2016’s Golden Bear-winning “Fire at Sea” — has led to Italian-American director Gianfranco Rosi’s most celebrated documentaries. But in “Notturno,” his return to the Venice competition, the approach is stretched a little beyond its elastic limit, proving only a fitful, if often spectacular, match for a thematic backdrop as grand, complex and intractable as [sweeping gesture] Middle East conflict.
This collage of vignettes from ordinary lives in the region, caught as — or more often arranged into — strikingly beautiful compositions, brings us back and forth across the borders between Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, in the process smudging political differences in one of the most highly politicized regions on earth. This is, of course, Rosi’s project: to communicate the commonality of human experience even in acutely divided terrain. But it also feels like too mild and milky an observation to be evidenced by such microscopically specific, often heartbreakingly personal stories. And with his filmmaking here ranging from the superbly aestheticized (he can find a Caravaggio painting in a shot of a boy in a windbreaker) to the straightforward, as in the presentation of a series of traumatized children’s art-therapy sessions, the approach can feel scattered where it ought to cohere. Soldiers and fishermen; mourning mothers in black and mute detainees in orange; psych ward inmates performing amateur dramatics and an adolescent boy acting as a bird-dog for an early-rising hunter — “Notturno” is not so much a catalogue of separate but synchronous incidents and insights, as a selection from several different catalogues.
In its wonderful opening shot, and several times thereafter, “Notturno” observes the military. At dawn (though the title means “night,” many of the richest scenes are shot as skies lighten, either at daybreak or in the false dawn of a far-off firefight) several platoons of soldiers jog in formation around a muddy track, huffing out their “Huh-huh-huh!” refrain as they pass the camera. Rosi’s use of directional sound (he is his own sound recordist as well as camera operator) in lieu of score is key. Later, a warmly romantic glimpse of a couple on a rooftop overlooking a city is only linked to the film’s themes by the distant crackle of sporadic gunfire. War as a constant but peripheral presence is rendered visually too: A man goes night fishing in serene lake waters, his boat cutting a glimmering path through the duckweed, and we realize slowly that the brightness reflected on the water is not the rising sun but the glow of some faraway conflagration.
Rosi, to his credit, has always been unafraid to challenge the conventions of the traditional observational documentary that dictate absolute fidelity to some notion of impartial objectivity. Much of “Notturno” is unmistakably dressed to the camera in such a way that we cannot but be aware of the director’s intervention, even though Rosi never speaks. In fact, silence is one of the film’s most artfully deployed attributes: When a group of female soldiers, all sleeping bunched together in one small room, wakes up and gets dressed for the day, they do so absolutely wordlessly, the clipping of buckles and the slapping of helmets the only sounds. It imbues the scene with significance precisely because it’s not naturalistic at all.
At other times, this mode of intervention is more questionable. In the broken-down, crumbling ruins of a prison (Rosi’s ennobling camera can make luminous tableaux of the ugliest places on earth), a weeping woman paces the cell in which her son died. “I feel your presence, my son,” she cries. “Prisons are for the wicked, and you were good.” She stands, framed almost religiously, singing her lament against the pockmarked wall, and it is agonizing — not just because of her grief, but the symbolic mileage extracted from it, making her intense personal loss emblematic and abstract, as though the loss itself were not enough. Later, another grieving woman hunches over a glowing cell phone and plays, one after the other, the escalatingly terrified voice messages left by her kidnapped daughter, who, we must assume from the woman’s weeping, never came home.
It is problematic that many of the film’s most powerful segments are its most prurient, and even more, that they are juxtaposed with the poetic and the prosaic. The personal is political, but it can also be very private, and where Rosi’s imagery is often arresting in its vivid sharpness, that dividing line — between insightfulness and invasiveness — like every border in this ancient, troubled region, is blurred.