A Film a Week - Darkness / Buio

previously published on Cineuropa

The premise of three girls living with their father in isolation during the times of the apocalypse sounds familiar, but first-time filmmaker Emanuela Rossi, working from a script she co-wrote with Claudio Corbucci (a prolific TV writer whose previous film credit was the genre piece Index Zero), has tried to do something fresh and in sync with contemporary thematic trends. Darkness premiered in the Italian Panorama section of Alice nella Città, and has now had its international premiere in the First Feature Competition of Tallinn Black Nights.
Three sisters with significant names, Stella (rising star of Italian cinema Denise Tantucci), Luce (Gaia Bocci in her first on-screen role) and Aria (Olimpia Tosatto, also a newcomer), live with their father (Valerio Binasco, of We Believed and The Beginners fame) in a spacious, secluded, dark mansion. He tells them that something has gone wrong with the sun, and two-thirds of the population died when it happened. Outside is no place to be for a young girl, since only the strongest of men can survive. So the father, when he is not at home imposing his brutal upbringing methods on his daughters, goes out every day to fetch food and other necessities. The sisters, meanwhile, stay at home watching old fitness videos and playing games usually led by Stella and normally aimed at reimagining the past they shared with their late mother.
Stella is the oldest of the three and remembers the world before the apocalypse – at least well enough not to take their father's stories at face value. Also, she is far from happy about being confined to the role of the abused lady of the house. Luce has just got her first period, and the father is shifting his incestuous focus onto her. Aria, the youngest one, does not speak, and it is hard to tell what she thinks, knows or understands about the situation. After an incident where Aria leaves the house and Stella goes to fetch her, and after a couple of days of the father's continuous absence, Stella decides to go out into the world...
As she finds out, the stories the father has been telling are a far cry from the truth, so the titular darkness gets another metaphorical layer added to it: the darkened rooms are less of a problem, and the real darkness here comes from a life spent under the yoke of tyranny and abuse. Clearly, Rossi's intention was to convert the template of a certain premise into a profoundly feminist story of liberation, as is evident from the fact that the film is dedicated to all of those girls who resist. The problem she had to face is the predictability of the dramaturgical conventions that she and Corbucci used to steer the plot. That, together with the broadly sketched characters, relegated to having a small bunch of basic characteristics, would suffice for a straight-up genre film, but it does not work that well in this melange of sorts, combining, as it does, post-apocalyptic science fiction, thriller, family movie and fairy tale.
On the other hand, Rossi makes up for this with her measured directing of the young actresses, who all seem natural in their roles, the effort she made to provide just the right number of details to build up the world and to create a standout audiovisual experience through the set and costume design, and the use of music, both classical and popular contemporary, as a narrative tool. The shallow-focus cinematography of Marco Graziaplena serves the purpose well and makes the most of the locations, both interior and exterior.

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