'Darkness by Day' ('El dia trajo la oscuridad'): Film Review

Vampire foreplay stretched to feature length.

Sophomore director Martin Desalvo's fantasy-tinged suspense drama casts Mora Recalde and Romina Paula as two women stuck in a creepy and isolated house in rural Argentina.

CANNES -- Best described as vampire foreplay almost stretched to feature length, Darkness by Day (El dia trajo la oscuridad), from Argentinian director Martin Desalvo (Kept and Dreamless), chronicles in minute detail what happens to two female cousins on a secluded estate while wicked things their way come -- or might have already slipped in unnoticed. The film was screened as part of the Blood Window Midnight Gala in the recent Cannes market, an initiative of the eponymous Ventana Sur market that showcases fantastic and genre fare from Latin America. Beyond Argentina, where it was released May 1, this auteur genre item should find an appreciate audience at midnight screenings and be catnip for the usual small-screen genre oulets.

The film’s protagonist is thirtysomething Virginia (Mora Recalde, the director’s partner in real life), who lives in the cavernous family mansion in what looks like a lost corner of Patagonia, where a dark forest gives way to majestic cliffs and the treacherous surf way down below. While there’s talk of a mysterious outbreak of rabies on the radio, Virginia’s father (Pablo Caramelo) is asked to check in on Julia, the daughter of his brother (Luciano Suardi), who’s been displaying strange symptoms and who, like everyone else, lives far away from the family estancia.

This leaves Virginia home alone in the vast family house until the arrival of her cousin, Anabel (Romina Paula), who's brought around by a servant and who, like the unseen Julia, hasn’t been feeling well. Virginia seems happy to not have to be alone anymore but get to spend some girl time with her cousin, though Anabel turns out to be not much of a companion, sleeping much of the day and disappearing into the surrounding woods at night.

The central conceit of the film, written by the director and Josefina Trotta, isn’t all that hard to figure out but what makes Darkness by Day unusual is its fastidious attention to not only quotidian detail but to pacing, which is carefully modulated across the entire running time.

Though a phone line may go dead or a window suddenly open at night, the overarching sentiment is one of an almost icy calm before the storm, with nothing directly confirming the viewers’ potentially growing suspicions until at least 50 minutes into the 78-minute film, which means that the initial sense of solitude and isolation has more than ample time to transform itself into one of dread and apprehension before the claws come out, so to speak. However, even here, Desalvo operates on the assumption that less is more, moving his pieces slowly into a position that’ll allow for a merciless checkmate that’s not a victory as much as something hushed but inevitable, which makes it much more spine-chilling.

The film’s gradually shifting atmosphere is thus a major part of its appeal and is aided not only by two stoic turns from the main actresses but also by the fantastic, somewhat creepy and certainly very isolated locations that ace cinematographer Nicolas Trovato captures with skill and imagination. All the nighttime scenes were reportedly shot day-for-night, allowing for a crisp definition even in the darker areas, a detail only viewers on the big-screen will likely fully appreciate.

Production company: Domenica Films

Cast: Mora Recalde, Pablo Caramelo, Luciano Suardi, Romina Paula

Director: Martin Desalvo

Screenwriters: Josefina Trotta, Martin Desalvo

Producers: Pepe Salvia, Laura Mara Tablon

Director of photography: Nicolas Trovato

Production designer: Fernanda Challi

Editor: Andres Tambornino

Sales: M-Appeal

No rating, 78 minutes