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Nightstream ’20 Review: “Darkness” Resists Easy Categorization

Friday, October 9, 2020 | Review


Starring Valerio Binasco, Denise Tantucci, Gaia Bocci
Directed by Emanuel Rossi
Written by Claudio Corbucci, Emanuela Rossi
Artex Film

BUIO, or DARKNESS, the Italian film journalist Emanuela Rossi’s film directorial debut, is a movie that I did not enjoy watching, and can’t imagine recommending to anyone. But I can’t say it isn’t good. In fact, it might be great.

The film follows three young sisters, Stella (Denise Tantucci), Luce (Gaia Bocci), and Aria (Olimpia Tosatto) as they struggle to weather their deranged conspiracist father’s abuse, and eventually, throw him off their backs. The patriarch (Valerio Binasco) referred to in the film simply as “Padre” (no separation between The Father and the father in this extremist yet vaguely defined religious household) has convinced his daughters that “the sun exploded,” leaving two-thirds of humanity dead. All the doors and windows have been sealed off. If they go outside, Padre warns, their “skin will be burned off,” their “eyes will melt.” They must be rigorously “protected.” And like all tyrants, protection is just a pretense for control. Control a pretense for domination.

Only he, donned in a grotesque, black rubber hazmat suit that looks more like a sci-fi plague doctor’s costume, can withstand the extreme conditions of the ravaged outside world. “Why can only you males go out?” innocent Luce asks early on. She’s instantly met with one of Padre’s innumerable, violently disproportionate retaliation. He quickly follows with the classic abuser’s salve: desperate pleas for forgiveness so manipulative, it seems not even the abuser is aware of his own manipulations.

DARKNESS is well, dark. The violence—emotional, psychological, physical, and verging toward sexual—is rendered in brutal, realistic terms. The girls are hit, thrown around, screamed at, belittled, gaslit, and lied to by their father. Hardest to watch is the way they cower under his roving, impulsive gaze. Their helpless looks bore straight into the viewer’s heart, as he singles each of them out for punishment, or worse, lecherous, borderless affection. Even as the film changes shape over halfway through—from a photosensitive chamber nightmare a la The Others (2001) to a kind of uncivilized-outsider-thrust-into-civilization misadventure movie a la … Elf (2003), weirdly?—Rossi’s direction remains turgid, ponderous and unspeakable. The darkness remains.

But again, this isn’t a criticism. Rossi’s decision to plod forward through all the abuse of act one and continue unchanging through the quirkiness and levity of act two, steamrolling over a delicate story of survival with an unrelenting and unsympathetic naturalism is, to tell you the truth, thrilling to watch. Seeing the word “feminist” thrown around in the early discussions of this film when it first played the festival circuit in 2019 now baffles me after seeing it. One can certainly understand the inclination to affix a feminist reading to the film when considering its broad arc—oppressed young women drawn into conflict with a literal, personal patriarchy. It’s not the feminist label the film resists, it’s the very act of being labeled.

Rossi’s film operates with a proud, profound lack of exposition. She drops you dead center into the action without bothering to help you to your feet with intimations of what you should think, who you should sympathize with, or what anything “means.” Even the resolution the film seems so obviously designed for, that of the girls throwing off the yoke of their father’s control (a resolution one quickly becomes desperate for after witnessing so much abuse), is wrought with complications. No father? No money, no food, no other family, friends, or knowledge of the world. To call DARKNESS empowering would be like calling Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) empowering. Sure, anyone could potentially find anything empowering, but empowerment feels too simple a conclusion to draw from this bizarre, dark, punishing, and often very funny film.

While it’s not perfectly executed, Rossi approaches DARKNESS the way most, if not all, great films are approached. She tells a story and leaves the interpretation up to you. As I watched DARKNESS’’ harrowing closing sequence I thought, am I relieved? Am I upset? With who, a character, or Emanuela Rossi? I’m still having that debate within myself, and while DARKNESS may disappoint horror fans (familial abuse treated this matter of factly is in fact so scary it takes a lot of the fun out of the usual genre thrills), ideas and aesthetics with this kind of shelf life, from a debut director, should be applauded.

Ryan Coleman
Ryan Coleman is a writer on film from the San Gabriel Valley.