From Boatman to Notturno, the cinema of Gianfranco Rosi pulsates with a specific vision, writes Nico Marzano, Head of Cinema at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. In this essay dedicated to IDFA’s Guest of Honor at the 2020 festival edition, he discusses Rosi’s vision, his cinematic language and the methodologies that underpin the director’s striking body of work.
Gianfranco Rosi’s latest work Notturno begins with a scene of a group of soldiers running across their training camp in the Middle East. Occasionally, as they approach the frame, we can hear the soldiers shouting as to encourage themselves and, at the same time, to confront the camera that is filming them. Suddenly we are catapulted into a context where the war can be sensed simultaneously as a scream and an echo. The soldiers appear, shout, and then disappear. This goes on and on: they appear, they disappear; they produce sound, followed by silence. It’s a silence that could be perceived as a metaphor for life in the Middle East, where echoes of war often alternate with moments of quiet before irreconcilable destruction, over and over, and with everyday life suspended between life and death.
Rosi’s cinema, from his very first film Boatman in 1993 to the recently released Notturno, not only demonstrates a carefully crafted aesthetic but pulsates with a specific vision. His filmmaking resonates through his rigorous approach and profound care for the stories encountered, as well as for the human beings who eventually find themselves in the foreground in his works. Gianfranco Rosi's filmography is a journey that can also feel, at times, like a secret. To this effect, his cinematic methodology tends to be rooted in the idea of keeping certain aspects of storytelling undisclosed, and left to the imagination of the spectator, while others are openly revealed.
Gianfranco Rosi seems to be constantly absorbed by the idea of looking for the right distance between the subjects of his stories and his camera. This can be seen whether we are in the holy city of Benares where the dead are burned before their ashes are cast into the sacred Ganges River (Boatman) or in a desert 200 miles from Los Angeles (Below Sea Level). It’s evident in a locked motel room near the Mexican border (El Sicario), roaming around Rome’s vast circular highway (Sacro GRA), on the movingly beautiful island of Lampedusa (Fire at Sea), or in the painfully tormented Middle East (Notturno). This carefully considered measure, which results in very clear formal and political implications in all of Rosi’s films, allows the viewer to relate with something deeply intimate, whether reflected in a long sequence or in a fleeting image.
On many levels, the cinema of Gianfranco Rosi is comparable to photography: what happens before and what will happen after the shot counts only to a certain extent. This is especially striking in Notturno for example, but is true for most of his work: the frame seems able to contain within itself all the essential aspects of what we must know or should care to know. As if through a sustained and symphonic balancing act, the image is placed within a space that activates a constant dialogue between the filmmaker, the subject, and the spectator.
Thanks to this retrospective, which offers an unmissable opportunity to (re)discover less easily available films such as Boatman, Below Sea Level, El Sicario—Rosi’s early and fundamental works—we will also inevitably be led to question what documentary really represents on both formal and political grounds. What does cinema stand for? Looking through his complete filmography, which spans nearly three decades, it seems safe to assume that the distinction between documentary and fiction increasingly feels meaningless to Rosi; we sense, instead, an obsession for cinema that searches for the truth. Truth, not intended as a philosophical or ethical quest but as a moment, something to capture before it’s too late, before it has vanished. Something that can be as fleeting as Ali’s gaze in Notturno or as confrontational as the cry of the killer in El Sicario, or as reassuring as the woman making up her family’s bed on the island of Lampedusa in Fire at Sea.
A quintessential aspect of Rosi’s cinematic approach also lies in the idea of subtraction. Rosi does not appear to believe in a world filled with an enormous number of images and/or information. On the contrary, his films seem to be about being as minimally descriptive or direct as possible. If we were to draw a parallel to other forms of art, Rosi’s cinema is reminiscent of the work of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, who created the thinnest of human shapes in his sculptures, with the challenge of examining when that shape might actually be on the verge of falling apart, and would no longer exist as a shape, in order to allow the missing space around his figures to emerge and be filled by the imagination of those watching.
In Rosi’s works, a lot of what we experience seems to rely on the close and intimate relationships established with his subjects, built through months and even years of living together while sharing, discussing, and understanding the issues at stake. Therefore, the stories featured in Gianfranco Rosi’s films are all grounded in very strong human relationships; then at some point, since his cinema never feels limited just to an observational dimension, these relationships somehow evolve into a stage where they can be molded into characters, and then eventually these characters become a tool through which we are not only confronting the specificity of these stories but also capturing a sense of universality that turns these stories into timeless archetypes. It’s precisely through this process that whether Rosi’s films take place in India, the U.S., Mexico, Italy, Kurdistan, Lebanon, or Iraq becomes irrelevant. Therefore, any desire for a precise geography becomes pointless and the presentation of factual information is not even part of his cinematic language.
If we look at Rosi’s oeuvre as a whole, it becomes strikingly apparent how all his works undergo a meticulous and extremely important stage in the editing room. Also thanks to Rosi’s long-time collaborator, and editor of all his films, Jacopo Quadri, alongside the fundamental support of Fabrizio Federico (also the long-term editing collaborator of another masterful Italian auteur: Pietro Marcello), Rosi comes across as a documentarian who values human connection and generosity above all else. This approach to cinema, and to life, has brought him to work with the same people, on both the production and distribution of all his films, over a period of many years. His long-standing relationships with his producers Donatella Palermo and Serge Lalou, and the essential support of RAI CINEMA, illustrate this, all of them playing an important part in Rosi’s working process. However, at the same time, it’s fundamental to underline how Rosi is a filmmaker that, since the beginning with Boatman, has traveled alone and has filmed everything by himself with his big, sturdy camera. One reason for this, we suspect, is to be as visible as possible in the environment surrounding him. So that most importantly, the dynamics between who is filming and who is being filmed are not hidden away or stolen but clearly addressed.
Rosi’s films are nothing less than a truly cinematic experience which is in turn deeply profound, humane, and empathetic; on the other hand, from a formal point of view, his features represent a unique journey, constantly striving for new languages and a new dimension of experimentation which reminds us what cinema truly stands for.
Gianfranco Rosi was born in 1964 in Asmara, Eritrea. He moved to New York in 1985, where he later graduated from the New York University Film School. Following a trip to India, he produced and directed his first medium-length film, Boatman (1993), presented at several international festivals. In 2008, he won the Prix Horizons and Doc/it for his second feature film, Below Sea Level, at the Venice Film Festival, and the Golden Lion in 2013 for Sacro GRA, making the film the first feature documentary to win this award. In 2016, Rosi went on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for both an Oscar and a César Award in 2017 for his documentary Fire At Sea. In September 2020 his latest work, Notturno, was premiered in the 77th official competition of the Venice Film Festival.