An epicene 14-year-old runaway is looked after by a ragtag assortment of young hustlers on the streets of Catania in Sebastiano Riso’s ham-fisted debut, “Darker Than Midnight.” Making generous nods to Dickens yet based in part on the life of drag artist Davide Cordova (seen in a small role), the pic is a jumble of caricatures and uncertain narrative construction, striking an uneasy balance between realism and phantasmagoria. Though well-meaning and generous to its protags, “Midnight” is too flawed to see much action outside queer fests and VOD.
Palid, willowy Davide (Davide Capone) is an embarrassment to his father, Massimo (Vincenzo Amato), who torments the boy for not being manly. Mom (Micaela Ramazzotti) is too weak to protect her son, her blindness a particularly heavy-handed metaphor for her “blindness” to her son’s cries for help. Davide runs away and ends up in Catania’s Villa Bellini park, where he’s taken under wing by effeminate hustler La Rettore (Giovanni Gulizia) and his band of gay outcasts.
Scenes of lurid Catania streets populated by queeny rent boys, butch hustlers and dirty old men are so artificial as to be almost Fellini-esque, yet why make them appear so forbiddingly decadent when it’s here that Davide finds acceptance? The boy falls hard for hustler Vito (Maziar Firouzi), the only stereotypically “normal” street walker, though his feelings aren’t reciprocated, and the most that Davide gets is a cringe-worthy rough-sex scene shot through a striped opaque glass door.
All along, Davide resists turning tricks, but when La Rettore turns up dead, the boy loses his protector and the future looks grimmer than ever. Enter Vito’s Fagin, a sleazy pimp in a white suit (Pippo Delbono) offering protection, but Davide knows it comes at a high price.
Everyone in the pic is a caricature except Davide, saved from exaggeration largely because the script doesn’t give him much personality, let alone inner life (Capone has a certain unknowable depth in his eyes, but the character needs more than wounded soulfulness). Flashbacks to his life at home, made pale via color correction, create further tonal problems, and the pimp’s singsong recitation of Oscar Wilde’s line “Each man kills the thing he loves” during a rape scene is just laughable, making a mockery of the poem’s meaning. HD visuals were shot using a 1970s anamorphic lens, giving a timelessness to the lensing, yet lighting and cheap color reinforce the low-budget look.