Many protective parents try to shelter their children, but in Emanuela Rossi’s Darkness (Italy, 2019), the father of three young girls takes it to a new extreme.
Stella (Denise Tantucci), Luce (Gaia Bocci), and Aria (Olimpia Tosatto) are trapped indoors in their isolated home that has bars on the windows. They are hidden away from the world and are forbidden to go outside — it’s too dangerous out there. What exactly the danger consists of is never made fully clear, yet the father has them convinced the world is ending — and the only way to remain safe is to make their own world at home.
The sun, he says, is deadly, and even if they aren’t fully convinced that outside is entirely inhospitable, father (Valerio Binasco) is tyrannical enough to make them listen and stay inside. “It’s bad for you to think of the past,” he says. “There is nothing left in the outside world.” Thus, they bide their time working out to ‘80s aerobic videos, taking baths together, and imagining light-dappled images of their mother as they sit in their artificially-lit world.
But seventeen-year-old Stella remembers life before the so-called end of the world, and this post-apocalyptic fairy tale takes on quietly feminist dimensions as she starts to push back against what she has been told. When Stella ventures out into the world, her face is a mask of silent desperation as she timidly enters a shopping mall or supermarket, wearing her helmet and goggles in the bright light of day. Eventually she returns home, and returns to patriarchal oppression and fear mongering: her father says that “terrible catastrophes are coming” and they must pray, and Stella herself has become something to be afraid of.
The girls fight and fester in the darkness and gloom of their confined space, captured in the shadowy and shallow-focus cinematography of Marco Graziaplena. But the shaky camera and synth-y soundtrack can feel slightly overdone, distracting us from the subtle yet powerful performances of the young actors. In addition, while the feminist aims of Stella’s rebellion are admirable, the story is a little too predictable to raise a defiant cry in the darkness. While the girls may not see the full truth of their circumstances, the plot is not anything we have not seen before, and by the end we are still left waiting to be enlightened with some novel revelation. The film’s depiction of teenagers kept isolated and ignorant is highly reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, though Rossi starts to step deeper into the dark emotional layers of the girls’ abuse without fully going there.
Rossi’s approach emphasizes the isolation and suppression the characters face, and depicts a deeply upsetting subject matter: examining the domestic abuse or familial violence that can take place behind closed doors. Darkness explores complex topics, and the acting is admirable in capturing the raw emotions behind this heightened situation, but it leaves a bit too much shrouded in the shadows for its original statement to be seen.