A dysfunctional family running a hostess club and prostitution ring in the Portuguese provinces tangles with the Russian mafia and enacts a Greek tragedy in Joao Canijo's "In the Darkness of the Night." Expressive and disturbing, the film is less of a social commentary than his previous "Get a Life" and more a knife-edged reflection on the dark side of the human soul. Though its unremitting morbidness and claustrophobic repetivity will turn some viewers off, it has enough story and characters to reach arthouse auds with careful handling.

A dysfunctional family running a hostess club and prostitution ring in the Portuguese provinces tangles with the Russian mafia and enacts a Greek tragedy in Joao Canijo’s “In the Darkness of the Night.” Expressive and disturbing, the film is less of a social commentary than his previous “Get a Life” and more a knife-edged reflection on the dark side of the human soul. Though its unremitting morbidness and claustrophobic repetivity will turn some viewers off, it has enough story and characters to reach arthouse auds with careful handling.

Sacrificing more family values than “The Godfather II,” the tale has a perverse fascination, heightened by its sleazy, neon-lit setting. As in the previous film, the story is based on a well-disguised classical source, here Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Aulis.”

Carla (Beatriz Batarda), the family’s scapegoat and slave, opens the film mopping up the blood of a young hooker whose throat has been cut. The Russians are angry with her father Nelson (Fernando Luis), who has tried to cheat them. As a sign of respect, they demand he hand over his spoiled younger daughter Sonia (Cleia Almeida) to their boss, who will start her on a life of prostitution and possibly kill her.

Nelson, introduced as a clown and a liar, accepts. His cloying love for his family fatalistically vanishes when he feels threatened. Sonia, an airhead teen princess, is petulantly preoccupied with her public singing debut, which is to take place that night in the club. Mother Celeste (Rita Blanco), the joint’s bleach-blonde madame, is too concerned with coloring Sonia’s hair “Princess Di blonde” to see the tragedy unfolding under her nose.

Only the passionate, overlooked Carla tries to prevent the sacrifice that is to take place. At first her warnings go unheeded but, in the course of the long evening, as the Russian hookers flirt and fondle the customers, Sonia and Celeste gradually come out of denial. Everyone seems helpless to stop “fate” from happening. The long, drawn-out climax ends in a cathartic spate of violence.

Though it’s no sociological study, pic has a ring of truth in its nauseating portrait of the violent, vulgar night world. Young Russian girls talk about being tricked into prostitution and die in the blink of an eye, or else age into disillusioned human wrecks.

The core cast is intense even in their frivolity. Batarda plays Carla as the rough, foul-mouthed heroine who, filled with holy wrath at her sister’s sacrifice, speaks out against injustice. Young Almeida, at first an irritating victim, turns into a heroine in her own way when she uncomplainingly accepts her destiny. As their parents, Luis and Blanco run the gamut of outrageous bad faith and vulgarity.

Mario Castanheira’s neon lighting, constantly changing in a play of cheap mall colors, and a camera in perpetual motion and tight close-ups create an unsettling, claustrophobic backdrop for the drama. Alexandre Soares’ score has a melancholy, no-exit quality.

In the Darkness of the Night

Un Certain Regard / Portugal-France

Production

A Madragoa/Gemini co-production. (International sales: Gemini, Paris.) Produced by Paulo Branco. Directed by Joao Canijo. Screenplay, Canijo, Pierre Hodgson, Mayanne Von Ledebur.

Crew

Camera (color), Mario Castanheira; editors, Jackie Bastide, Joao Braz; music, Alexandre Soares; production designer, Ze Branco; sound (Dolby SRD), Philippe Morel, Gerard Rousseau. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 20, 2004. Running time: 110 MIN. (Portuguese and Russian dialogue)

With

Carla - Beatriz Batarda Sonia - Cleia Almeida Nelson - Fernando Luis Celeste - Rita Blanco
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