Daniel Castro Zimbrón’s twilight tale of an isolated Mexican family in the woods impressed at the L’Étrange Festival.
This year’s L’Étrange Festival opened with the world premiere of Daniel Castro Zimbrón’s new feature film The Darkness (Las tinieblas). After Tau (meaning ‘sun’ in the Huichol language), which dealt with a biologist stranded in a sunburnt desert and forced to reconsider his past and present, this second part of the ‘Trilogy of Light’ explores the other extreme, while starring the same Gustavo, convincingly and charismatically played by Brontis Jodorowsky. This time the desert gives way to a misty forest, where a father lives with his three children: a teenage Marcos, 12-year-old Argel and 8-year-old Luciana. They live alone in the woods, cloistered in a house repeatedly haunted by something dark, noisy and scary, in an unspecified future. The post-apocalyptic dimension of these woods is only vaguely hinted at when young Argel asks his father about the use of an old rusted pick-up, a relic from an unknown, bygone past. In this indefinite future there seem to be neither seasons nor any difference between day and night – only claustrophobic mist-ridden twilight. The title’s darkness is recurrently created by the father’s meticulously closing the shutters and locking his children in the cellar for bedtime. This world is further blurred by Argel’s mystical dreams, which invade the narration now and again, revealing their oneiric nature only when Argel wakes up. In one such dream, a Pandora-like box diffusing a blinding white light alludes to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), where a similar box was the fruit of the Manhattan Project.
The fact that the whole story is narrated from Argel’s point of view, oscillating between dream and reality, adds to the general mystery, as does the masterful cinematography of Diego García who, as in Tau, shoots exclusively in natural light. Tenebrist tableaux, reminiscent of Caravaggio or Joseph Wright of Derby, are worth a look for themselves, but Zimbrón avoids complacent indulgence in mannerist camerawork by endowing his shots and his plot with an inner depth that transfigures the film from a post-apocalyptic thriller into a universal comédie humaine, exploring the confused limits between parental protection and authority, set against young Argel’s coming-of-age. For the beast that visits the house ‘nightly’ is (to quote the director’s own words) ‘a metaphor of the world in which we live, in which the beast represents the dangers outside the home as well as the dark side of human nature’. During his waking hours, the father makes elaborate wooden puppets of and for his children, the last one being fashioned after Luciana’s drawing of him as a spider-shaped monster. Like this puppeteer, Zimbrón manipulates our expectations, scatters contradictory clues as to what is really going on, and deceives us into believing in a M. Night Shyamalan-like twist, only to depart from it in the last part of the film, leaving us eventually, bewitchingly and literally in the dark.