Director Emanuela Rossi delivers Darkness with impeccable timing and clear intention. Through a use of a genre uncharacteristic of today’s Italian cinema, she creates a film that is strangely prophetic and largely effective.
Darkness begins in a world in which women are not allowed to leave the house. 17-year-old Stella and her two younger sisters, Aria and Luce, live with their overbearing, religious father. Initially devoted, Stella begins to question her father and the reality he paints for them.
As we observe the young women going about their day, oppressed by their father and longing for a past life, the first act of the film lays a clear expectation: the majority of the runtime will be spent in this house. Yet as I started to get used to the claustrophobic environment and the dark colour palette, the girls are bathed in sunlight during a religious ceremony. At first, I perceived this as a failure on the movie’s part: surely you would want to wait before revealing the sun in all its glory. Then another unexpected turn: in the beginning of the second act, Stella takes her first steps into the world.
This is where the focus of the movie is finally revealed. In fact, oppression does not end the minute you step out of it. It is an eternal battle. We see this as Stella continues to explore the outside world, for longer periods each time. At first she is strictly protected by layers of clothing and hidden refuges, but then she is slowly more trusting of the environment surrounding her. The similarities with life in a pandemic could have ended at the girls’ reclusive lives. However, the film goes beyond that and creates something that intensely resonates in this particular time. Stella has to rediscover the world around her, making her every mundane adventure feel exciting and terrifying.
A strong point of the movie is its cinematography. From the composition to the lighting, every shot is intentional and carries the movie with it. While the dark palette of the rooms is to be expected, the well-placed pops of colour characterize the house as one made of harsh choices and extremes. This stands in opposition to the more muted tones seen in the flashbacks and in the outside world, soothing to the eye. The choice of gold in every memory tied to their mother is evocative of the deeper spiritual message of the movie. In fact, in Christian art, this colour traditionally represents the light of God, signifying a wider spiritual path—one away from the father’s violent, patriarchal approach to religion.
One criticism which could be held to this movie is the lack of complexity for its main antagonist. The viewer knows the girls went from having a relatively normal life to one of isolation and reclusion, yet there is a weakness in conveying how they arrived at this. However, this is thematically consistent with the rest of the film. Rather than fully fleshed out people, its protagonists are broadly drawn. While this works in the darkest parts of the film, it does not necessarily carry through to the rebirth of the protagonist, at times affecting the engagement of the audience.
The reception of this film, like many others of its genre, is about expectations. Those looking for a straight horror are going to be disappointed. But those open to a shadowy take on the pandemic will find a film that is insightful and prophetic. They will find that, as the protagonist takes her first cautious steps inside a supermarket, it will resonate with them, whether they end up enjoying the experience or not.
Words by Elisabetta Pulcini
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