Emanuela Rossi’s directorial debut Darkness screened at this year’s Dublin Feminist Film Festival. Her feminist apocalyptic family drama is a nuanced exploration of control and freedom seen through the eyes of a teenaged girl, aspects highlighted by the film’s dedication to “all of the girls who resist.”
Darkness follows Stella (Denise Tantucci) and her two younger sisters, Luce (Gaia Bocci) and Aria (Olimpia Tosatto), who live in complete isolation, forbidden to leave their spacious Italian countryside home. The window and doors are boarded up, lights are kept low, and food is rationed. Their father (Valerio Binasco), who leaves and returns periodically with supplies, demands that they never leave, warning them of an apocalyptic event which affected the sun and led to mass deaths, including that of their mother.
Initially the world of Darkness appears almost out of time. The girls’ only interaction with modern technology is VHS tapes of dated 80s-style fitness programmes which they vigorously work out to daily, while their father appears stuck in an earlier era, in which the girls wear full-length dresses and waltz with him in order to keep him happy. Indeed, Stella’s exploration of both her sense of self and an understanding of the wider world is coupled with a discovery of contemporary music and clothing: and indeed, this evolution of music particularly important to the film’s soundtrack.
There are plenty of modern and historical parallels regarding the control and coercion of women and girls that viewers are likely to reflect upon. And indeed, the story of Josef Fritzl uncomfortably came to my mind more than once while watching. Rossi’s film carefully details the everyday as well as the more monstrous moments that mount up to the father’s reign over his children. Even on the occasions when he permits them to open windows and let in sunlight he accompanies these supposedly generous gestures with more and more stringent safety measures for the girls: they must wear helmets and goggles as protection.
At times Darkness comes across as a mish-mash of other genre films. The ominous opening shots which seem to be a flash-forward to a violent end, particularly that of blood dripping down the kitchen wall, feels like a modern-day gesture towards The Witch, while the house’s entrance hall is turned into a quarantine zone plastered in plastic sheets, much like It Comes At Night. And certainly, the father as the untrustworthy gatekeeper of the bombshelter is reminiscent of 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Nevertheless, while Darkness may at times feel over-familiar to the genre-savvy, it interrogates its conceit with a refreshing and growing sense of awareness from its teenaged protagonist which makes it very worthwhile. 17-year-old Stella is old enough to remember the world before the apocalypse, and she is left to navigate a delicate balancing act where she must placate her father while trying to protect her sisters. In doing so she has to decide how much of her father’s narrative she will buy into. This conflict is played out primarily in Tantucci’s performance, who rises admirably to the challenge.
Poignant and unflinching, Darkness is made up of small reflective moments which builds up to an impressive and important climax as Stella discovers more about the world around her.
Darkness screened at the Dublin Feminist Film Festival from the 20th to 22nd of August 2021.