It is day six and Mads Mikkelsen drinks himself into a stupor but, you know, for science, in Another Round, while award-winning documentarian Gianfranco Rosi looks at life during wartime with Notturno.
Dogme ’95 alum Thomas Vinterberg reunites with Mads Mikkelsen for another scathing look at modern Danish society after their last collaboration, The Hunt. This time they explore drinking culture, the attraction of alcohol and its debilitating effects to the body, relationships, and perhaps even the soul. But rather than deliver a soapbox sermon, Vinterberg and co-screenwriter Tobias Lindholm offer a nuanced but darkly satirical viewpoint on an issue that deeply affects the entire globe.
High school history teacher Martin (Mikkelsen) is in a rut. Approaching middle age, he has lost the passion for his life and career and has settled into a general malaise. While at a celebratory dinner with his three best friends (also teachers at the same school) he learns about a philosophy that suggests one could improve their life if they maintained a blood-alcohol level of 0.05% at all times. The four friends decide to conduct an experiment with themselves as test subjects. Setting rules and guidelines to make it “official”, they begin micro-dosing booze and quickly experience alarmingly positive results.
Veteran Danish filmmaker Vinterberg has a keen eye for satire and is unafraid to go to some controversial places to make his point. Yet he doesn’t descend into finger-wagging preachiness, instead he applies a dark sense of humour to the proceedings, making the events that transpire feel real despite the heightened circumstances. The central male characters are products of their society; intelligent but emotionally handicapped men who can’t face their growing dissatisfaction with any conscious regard. Instead, they turn to alcohol to bring some spontaneity to their humdrum lives, the rules they set merely window-dressing to assuage their guilt.
Mikkelsen is, as always, terrific as Martin, his transformation is subtle but effective. As he takes sips of vodka between classes, he re-kindles the connection with his students he thought long lost. His dizzying highs are of course met with crushing lows, as he and his friends decide to deepen their experiment and see how far they can go with an epic night of binging. There is a clear comparison happening between the middle-aged men hitting the tiles while their students do the same; there is a societal expectation for students to drink and misbehave but when the middle-aged do the same, it is embarrassing at best and utterly destructive at worst. But is it ever okay?
Vinterberg doesn’t let his characters off the hook, but seems to consider society with more scorn than its citizens. Even as Martin and his mates begin to realise the real human cost of their “experiment”, everyone around them is still imbibing casually without a second thought. Alcohol is the most socially accepted drug on the planet, one that has become so ubiquitous that its consumption must be taken to an extreme before it becomes noticeable beyond the everyday. The ambiguity of the final act brings into focus a worrying thought that even the realisation of its effects in extremis may not be enough to fully escape its grip.
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang
Writers: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg
Award-winning, socially conscious documentarian Gianfranco Rosi presents a fascinating but tragic examination of the lives of ordinary people in the recent war zones of Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon. He turns an unblinking eye toward what happens to individuals and families in times of conflict, people who are caught in the middle and suffer at the hands of ideologues and militias, and how, if ever, they can pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
The film interconnects a series of short episodes in the lives of people across a war-torn Middle East: a twelve year-old boy who must find work to support his mother and eight siblings since their father went missing; an all-female military unit in Kurdistan protecting the frontline from ISIS forces; a group of children who are asked to draw pictures of what happened when ISIS invaded their town; and a Syrian psychiatric ward where patients perform a play to work through their collective trauma.
Rosi moves between these stories with a primarily static camera, establishing every shot as a tableau within which the drama plays out. There is very little dialogue as Rosi focuses on faces and places to tell the story of his subjects’ everyday struggle. Sound also plays an important role in establishing the extraordinary sense of place, with gunfire constantly popping somewhere in the distance, even as those on camera go about their daily lives, suggesting that the trauma they suffered, while abated, may return at any moment.
It is this trauma that is at the centre of the Notturno, and more specifically, the way we use art to work through it. In one of the most harrowing scenes, the child victims of ISIS are asked to draw their experiences and hang the pictures on the wall. A slow pan across the innocently crayon-sketched artwork reveals a litany of torture and abuse that could not be more gut-wrenching than if it was actually portrayed on screen. There are also the patients in the psychiatric ward learning their lines for a play about the Syrian war. The play itself, interspersed with archival footage, offers a meta-textual moment which reflects back on the film itself.
While the people and their lives featured in Notturno are doubtlessly real, some of the scenes and situations feel rehearsed. These scenes, while perhaps stage managed by Rosi become even more powerful and magnify the truth of their circumstances. This Herzogian “ecstatic truth” is brought into focus by the actors in the play who are also performing roles informed by their own lives, which makes the case for performance as catharsis. However, one could accuse Rosi of manipulation, re-enacting the pain and anguish in his subjects lives in order to make his film, calling to mind Joshua Oppenheimer’s searing doc The Act of Killing.
Notturno offers no easy answers. Rosi captures the tragedy of is subjects lives in such a painterly and nuanced way as to make the violence inflicted upon them even more harrowing because of the absence of the acts themselves. Instead, the audience is left to their imaginations to fill in the gaps, which draws us in even closer to the ugly certainties of their situation, to see the humanity amidst the chaos.
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