Afraid of the Dark (Bruises) -- Film Review

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VENICE -- Few Italian films on immigration and xenophobia attempt to imagine immigrants' lives prior to their arrival in Italy. Former MTV VJ and documentary director Massimo Coppola does, with a heroine worthy of the Nouvelle Vague, in his uneven feature debut "Afraid of the Dark (Bruises)." His sensitive portrayal of an unlikely friendship, good eye for industrial wastelands (even beautiful countryside shots are spotted with electrical towers) and Joy Division soundtrack make some of the film's social cliches easier to overlook.

"Afraid" is tailor-made for festivals, and its timely subject matter has become an arthouse staple of late. Domestic audiences for "Afraid" will be predominantly hip, young liberals who may find the Italian characters stereotypical but will doubtfully pose the same question of the foreigners.

Flighty, sexy, young Eva (Alexandra Pirici) lives alone and anonymously in Bucharest. When her factory closes down, she sets off for Foggia, a southern Italian city not exactly known for its beauty. Presumably, she's going to join the sender of an old, sunny postcard we see in the very beginning.

There, she meets Anna (Erica Fontana), a brooding young woman of the same age who works extra shifts in a Fiat factory to keep her poor family afloat. Eva worms her way into the family's tiny apartment and daily life with unabashed ease. Within 48 hours, she's driving Anna's car, sleeping with Anna's co-worker Bruno (Alfio Sorbello) and tailing an older woman (Lia Bugnar) she espies in a park.

But this isn't a psychological thriller about a single, white, Romanian female -- Eva's reasons for coming to Foggia are neither sinister nor frivolous.

Despite a quiet animosity, polar opposites Eva and Anna establish an unspoken understanding, reflecting what the other needs (or needs to be) at that moment in time. Eva craves a family; Anna feels guilty for leaving hers to attend university in Naples. The actresses barely exchange words, but their affecting performances clearly convey how the young women help one another at a crucial turning point in their lives.

In one of the film's key moments, Bruno asks Eva why she's come to Italy. "Finally," she says, "someone thought to ask me that," implying that most Italians don't bother to even wonder. Unfortunately, the answer -- which comes in a long psychological showdown whose emotional intensity Pirici struggles bravely to maintain -- turns out to be a standard of Italian film and TV. But is it really that difficult to imagine that not all immigrants arrive laden with the same tragic emotional baggage?

The camerawork is good but has primarily only two modes -- tight close-ups and pans of the wide-open countryside -- and the fact that most of the music abruptly cuts off midsong soon feels gimmicky. Nevertheless, Coppola proves he can work with actors, building characters through their smallest gestures rather than superfluous dialogue.

Venue: Venice International Film Festival
Production company: Indigo Film
Cast: Alexandra Pirici, Erica Fontana, Antonella Attili, Alfio Sorbello, Manrico Gammarota, Lia Bugnar, Marcello Mazzarella, Angela Goodwin
Director-screenwriter: Massimo Coppola
Producer: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima
Director of photography: Daria D'Antonio
Production designer: Paolo Bonfini
Costume designer: Roberta Nicodemo
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Sales: SND Films
No rating, 94 minutes
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