'Darker Than Midnight (Piu’ Buio di Mezzanotte)': Cannes Review

Darken Than Midnight Still Cannes - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Darken Than Midnight Still Cannes - H 2014

A carefully crafted but emotionally tepid coming-of-ager.

A 14-year-old Sicilian lad opts for street life to defend his sexual freedom in Sebastiano Riso’s directing bow.

Few who watch Darker Than Midnight, Sebastiano Riso’s savvy first venture into directing, are likely to associate the 14-year-old protag Davide with Davide Cordova, who after a rough adolescence in Sicily achieved fame on the Roman stage as the drag queen Fuxia. The story of his traumatic break with his family and adoption by a group of eccentric but friendly gay and trans street people is told with the kind of earnest sincerity that will please some auds and irritate others, especially those looking for stronger emotions. Still, fine tech work makes this low-budgeter look modern and festival-ready, and the film should sail merrily on after its bow in the Cannes Critics Week. But there’s not much new here to push it into the mainstream, and commercially the film will have trouble going beyond LGBT audiences.   

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The first shots of Davide (played by the engaging wide-eyed newcomer Davide Capone) with his delicate face framed by a mop of bushy red hair deliberately sows doubts about whether we are watching a boy or a girl. It recalls another, more accomplished coming-of-ager from Italy’s nether regions, just across the Straits of Messina: Fabio Mollo’s The South is Nothing, which featured an androgynous 17-year-old girl from Calabria. Examining gender non-conformism in the traditional Mediterranean world gives both stories a piquancy they wouldn’t have had in a more up-to-date place like Milan or Turin, say. But it’s hardly enough to keep a whole film on track, especially a delicate first film sprinkled with believability issues.

Davide doggedly goes against the grain to follow his star and a future that hasn’t yet crystallized in his mind. His main psychological trauma revolves around his hostile father (Vincenzo Amato), who far from trying to understand his son’s budding sexuality sends him to a less than sympathetic doctor. Despite a lot of shouting, never does the father actually strike Davide on screen, though he does an impressive job of wrecking the boy’s secret hideaway plastered with glamour photos of actresses and Ziggy Stardust. It's a shame the script never really comes to grips with this central padre-figlio relationship, and this turns into a key weakness in the final scenes.

After the wrecking episode, Davide makes the courageous decision to leave home. Looking like a young schoolboy with his backpack, he wanders around Catania’s sprawling Bellini park at night gawking at the bag ladies and gay couples. He follows some wildly attired boys into a porn theater and takes a good look around, but when a man makes advances, he knees him and runs off. Later he becomes buddies with the theater’s mischievous cashier Salvatore, who calls himself La Rettore after Italian singer and gay icon Donatella Rettore. The spontaneous Giovanni Gulizia leaves an impression in this brief role. Later, he gives Davide a gliding, single-shot tour of the colorful alleyways of Catania’s red light district, where he is introduced to the sexy trans hooker Marilyn (Sebastian Gimelli Morosini, kind of fascinating in spite of playing the Monroe cliché to the hilt) and welcomed aboard as one of the band of outsiders.

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The difference is that Davide is still a virgin and doesn’t sell himself like everybody else. Perhaps because of his tender age, he’s given a period of grace in which to find his path. The only clues to his future glory are the fact he likes singing in front of a mirror, and a scene where he’s dazzled speechless by the apparition of an opera singing performing in drag. He keeps his distance from the man in the white suit, a thoughtful pimp who as played by Pippo Delbono is one of the film’s more original characters. One night he invites Davide into his big white car and warbles a bit of opera. “Anybody can sing,” he tells the boy in an attempt to deflate his dreams.

Giveaway flashbacks fill in the picture of Davide’s tormented life at home. Quite unnecessarily, flashbacks are signaled by the throbbing sound of low-key disco bass, making these memories painful to the audience as well as to the hero. He’s indulged by his loving mother (Micaela Ramazzotti), who in one scene appears to cross the line with her maternal fondling. However, the fine Ramazzotti rises to the challenge of minimal screen time to communicate the anguish of separation when she later bumps into the liberated Davide in front of a church. The screenplay also has her going blind, but this is a puzzle, a stranded bit of scripting symbolism that adds nothing to their relationship or the story.

Michele Braga’s music is subtle but strongly controls the mood of scenes, many shot at night in the confident camerawork of DP Piero Basso

Venue: Cannes (Critics Week), May 15, 2014

Production companies: Idea Cinema in association with Rai Cinema

Cast: Davide Capone, Vincenzo Amato, Lucia Sardo, Micaela Ramazzotti, Pippo Delbono, Giovanni Gulizia, Sebastian Gimelli Morosini, Gabriele Mannino

Director: Sebastiano Riso

Screenwriters:  Andrea Cedola, Stefano Grasso, Sebastiano Riso

Producer:  Claudio Saraceni

Executive producers: Federico Saraceni, Jacopo Saraceni

Director of photography: Piero Basso

Production designers: Melina Ormando, Raffaella Baiani

Costumes: Luigi Bonanno

Editor: Marco Spoletini

Music: Michele Braga

Sales Agent: Rai Trade

No rating, 98 minutes.