By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Fiona Glascott, Pietro Ragusa and Marcello Prayer
Written and directed by Rossella De Venuto
Regardless of how much we may prefer it to be so, it isn’t only beauty, art and love that endure. There is a darkness that can transcend our earthly lives as well, hidden in ancient cracks and furrows, seeded in the soil, imprinted into ruts of tradition, floating in the air and welded surreptitiously onto the very strands of our DNA. The elegantly realized MIDDAY DEMONS (now available on VOD) not only takes the implications of this darkness seriously, but also invites us to immerse ourselves in a beguiling, remote locale in which the veil that holds it back is startlingly thin and hauntingly porous.
We don’t begin there, however. The film opens in a swank, champagne-festooned Dublin art gallery. Comely and poised, Megan (Fiona Glascott) is describing her impressionistic approach to portraiture to a reporter: “I don’t want the essence of the person to be trapped by their appearance.” This will prove to be a clever bit of foreshadowing once she decides to tag along on a trip to Italy with her husband Leo (Pietro Ragusa), an architect who has just inherited a family property he hopes to quickly unload. “It’s going to be really boring,” he warns. “Relatives, notaries.” “You’ll see,” she cheerily replies as she rescues a moth from its own worst instincts. “It’s not going to be boring with me.” We did mention there was a fair bit of foreshadowing, right?
At any rate, this is how the chic modern couple find themselves in a picturesque coastal Apulian village that looks as if it hasn’t been young in a thousand years. (Official Italian government tourism materials describe it as an “enchanting region” nestled in “the spur of the Italian boot” which “contains…many souls.”) Almost immediately upon arrival, two fateful turns of the wheel: First, they learn Leo’s late uncle Domenico (Salvatore Lazzaro), a beloved local priest, is being considered for sainthood. Second, Megan falls head over heels in love with her husband’s inherited property, insisting they ditch the hotel and stay there instead.
Alas, it is soon clear there are family secrets the living are hellbent on maintaining—and which the restless dead are determined to use Megan and her art as a conduit to expose. As Megan becomes a battleground for these two factions, she becomes more isolated and “otherized” by Leo’s increasingly hostile clan. Perhaps sensing this, the spirits redouble their efforts, peppering her with harrowing visions that she channels into a sort of spirit/automatic drawing practice. Megan struggles to make sense of the disparate clues, scenes and totems thrust at her from the other side, but, driven to the edge of madness one too many times, she comes to understand that there is no turning back. Her life—and, very likely, her soul—are at stake. And the only way she can hope to save either is by shedding a cauterizing light on some bleak, stygian corners of this deceptively beautiful arena. One gets the sense that she has learned considerably more about essence and spiritual entrapment than she could’ve picked up in decades wandering around her studio or gallery.
Writer/director Rossella De Venuto delivers a smart, nuanced film that does not shortchange either half of the “supernatural thriller” descriptor, proving herself extremely adept at summoning both surreal, dreamlike atmospheres and extremely naturalistic slices of life into existence. At its best moments, MIDDAY DEMONS feels like Mariano Baino’s DARK WATERS and Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN crosspollinated with Alejandro Amenábar’s THE OTHERS, dropped into a setting—and with a sense of separateness and magic—that calls to mind Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead explored in SPRING. Add to that a multilayered, smoldering and at times brutal performance by Glascott, and you’ve got some strange, wonderful alchemy on your hands. It may not exactly be the type of vacation you’d ask a travel agent to line up for you, but this disorienting, lovely, affecting, unsettling film is a land worth visiting nonetheless.