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A Romanian woman travels to Italy to confront her past in Massimo Coppola’s respectable feature debut, “Afraid of the Dark.” Though occasionally overwritten, especially a climactic conflict scene that would function better onstage, Coppola’s inward-looking drama intriguingly plays on concepts of emigration, East-West and North-South. It doesn’t escape a certain amount of stereotyping, but the characters generally feel real, and the picture of a stagnant Italian South rings true. Probably too much of a chamber piece for local tastes, the pic should find success at offshore Italian-oriented fests.

An arresting opening shot from the heights of an apparently abandoned factory is more ambitious than the rest of the pic can sustain, but the scene — with the camera mounted on a horizontal crane that starts to move as workers, like ants, enter from the edges of the frame — acts as a declaration of vision.

Eva (Alexandra Pirici) is laid off with all younger workers in a Bucharest factory. Momentarily dismayed, she sells her things and flies to Italy, heading for the small town of Melfi. Earlier she’s seen holding a postcard from this out-of-the-way place in the province of Basilicata, though it’s unclear from whom.

When Anna (newcomer Erica Fontana) finds Eva sleeping in her car, she allows the young woman to stay in her family apartment. Reflexively kind but not warm, Anna’s action, and her parents’ acceptance of this Romanian stranger, isn’t exactly believable, but Anna is meant to be a contradictory character, perpetually angry yet yearning for a connection. She works nights at the Fiat factory, which Coppola nicely exploits as a destabilizing element in time-perception.

The ballsy Eva mysteriously tails a Romanian woman (Antonella Attili), spying on her activities and her relationship with pimp Mirko (Marcello Mazzarella), leading to an overly scripted showdown between the two women that feels like the director saved all his verbal zingers for the one scene. Further problems lie in the way Coppola tries to parallel Eva and Anna, especially via a spangly dress that might be Eva’s taste but Anna, as characterized here, would never wear.

Far more believable is the way the pic implicitly addresses immigration issues, past and present. For decades inhabitants of the depressed Italian South decamped for the more prosperous North and abroad; Romanians, escaping their own lack of opportunities, now take their place.

Both young thesps stand out. With her angry mien, Fontana exudes unexpressed turmoil and is always an intriguing presence, while Pirici’s ease conveys a strength stemming from hardship. Lensing is marked by a preponderance of closeups, visually confining both women within their limited opportunities while giving the whole a pleasing intimacy. Having MTV Italia onboard must have made the music sampling, including Joy Division and P J Harvey, easier to include, and Coppola’s inventive use of the tracks, allowing the songs to build up and then cutting them off, adds to a sense of unfulfillment. Subtitles on the Venice print use the awkward title “You Are Afraid of the Dark,” while some press material has it as “Afraid of the Dark (Bruises).”

Afraid of the Dark

Italy

  • Production: A BIM Distribuzione release of an Indigo Film production, in association with MTV Italia, in collaboration with BIM Distribuzione. Produced by Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima. Executive producer, Viola Prestieri. Directed, written by Massimo Coppola.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Daria D'Antonio; editor, Cristiano Travaglioli; production designer, Paolo Bonfini; costume designer, Roberta Nicodemo; sound (Dolby Digital), Emanuele Cecere, Riccardo Spagnol; line producer, Gennaro Formisano; associate producer, Berenice Vignoli; casting, Barbara Braconi, Catalin Dordea. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Critics' Week), Sept. 4, 2010. (Also in London Film Festival -- Cinema Europa.) Running time: 90 MIN.
  • With: With: Alexandra Pirici, Erica Fontana, Antonella Attili, Alfio Sorbello, Manrico Gammarota, Lia Bugnar, Andra Bolea, Marcello Mazzarella, Angela Goodwin.
  • Music By: