Passion in a handful of dust
Amanda: “Don’t you have a TV?”
Martino: “No. Just movies.”
Dopo Mezzanotte begins with sound and fury: a mysterious hero clad in black leather whizzes through the city astride a majestic motorcycle. He dismounts in front of a Jaguar car showroom, turns around to face the camera, and opens his jacket to reveal his shirt soaked with blood.
The illusion of high drama, however, is quickly disrupted as an unseen narrator dryly breaks in: “Of course, we all want to know why the Angel is bleeding, and who shot him?” This is immediately followed by a chiding of how “audiences always want to know all about character. They do not care about place.” This deadpan voice over interruption sets the tone for the rest of the film: a light-fantastic, humorous, slightly bizarre tale, told with an unmistakable quirkiness along the lines of Amelie or (for a geographically closer cousin) de Sica’s Miracolo a Milano (though for Dopo the locale is Turin rather than Milan, and the site of magic the National Museum of Cinema in the Mole Antonelliana building rather than the shanty-towns in the Milanese city periphery). And if, as a few other critics have charged, Dopo proceeds in an egregiously self conscious manner (for example, Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian pulled no punches in charging the film as “schmaltz, sentimentality and supercilious movie-buffery”), in this reviewer’s opinion it is precisely that combination of artifice and gauche which lends itself so endearingly to the whimsical nature of its story, and the fairy-tale quality of its story-telling.
For Dopo is a tale with enough motifs to make a child smile: a shy and gawky hero, an unspoken courtship, a maiden in distress, a dashing love rival . . . The plot runs as follows: fearfully diffident, socially inept, and hopelessly clueless Martino (Giorgio Pasotti) is the custodian of the National Museum of Cinema in Turin. He harbours a secret crush on Amanda (Francesca Inaudi) which he, too shy to approach her directly, expresses by awkwardly purchasing a Double Fry Special from her every day in the fast-food restaurant where she works. One day, rather unwisely, Amanda throws hot oil on the restaurant manager in a fit of pique and, while running from the police, hides out in the Museum where she befriends the overwhelmed Martino, dazed and bewildered by his unexpected good fortune. Complications occur when Amanda’s previously uncommitted boyfriend, the Angel (Fabio Troiano), decides he wants her back. In the rest of the story, this love triangle thus plays itself out to its bitter end, which, if a tad predictable, nonetheless rests on the most beautiful image of the entire film: a handful of dust drifting slowly and composedly against the cavernous ceiling of the Mole.
But Dopo is more than the love story between Martino, Amanda, and the Angel; it is also the love story between its maker and cinema. Ferrario unabashedly pays homage to silent film, specifically the works of Buster Keaton, as well as to the early technologies which gave rise to it, such as the magic lantern and the pin-hole camera. He expresses his tributes diegetically, primarily through the character of Martino: Martino devouring film after film in the Museum; or Martino clinging to his crank camera like it was a priceless treasure, filming “the world as it is, before films became about attractions or guns.” In one charming scene, Martino and Amanda joke and pose in front of a pin-hole camera, a device which becomes imbued with love and romance as their antics with the camera draw their relationship closer. The theme is also expressed cinematically, such as Ferrario’s intercutting of shots from old silent films to express the high emotional and dramatic points of his own film. In one memorable scene, Ferrario deliberately intercuts mirroring shots from Buster Keaton’s 1920 film,The Scarecrow, so that Martino reveals to Amanda the furniture in his room in much the same way Keaton presented his mechanical knick-knacks and devices in his film (this technique also calls to mind Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film on cinephilia, The Dreamers, whereby the charades played by the film’s characters were similarly intercut with the original shots featured in their games of make-believe).
The point of homage stems from love, of course: a boy’s love for a girl — Martino finally reveals his true feelings to Amanda by showing her a film which included footage he had filmed of her; a spectator’s love of silent (and bygone) cinema — Ferrario dedicated Dopo to Buster Keaton; and a filmmaker’s love of a medium that continues to evolve and thrive today — the narrator’s final muse is: “Perhaps there is no end. Movies end; cinema never will.” Cinephilia is not an unknown subject matter in movies, from the evocative Cinema Paradiso to the manic Cinemania to the self-absorbedly ensconced The Dreamers. Nonetheless, I think Dopo makes the most interesting point yet: in documenting the infinitude of movie love, Ferrario also makes the point that love is an illusion. Cinema itself is an illusion, and Ferrario deliberately breaks the fallacy of its realism several times: for example, when he erroneously quotes a Danish proverb, a hitherto unknown and unheard female narrator chimes in and corrects his pronunciation, and he then calmly expresses his gratitude to her. It is a game of complicity in which every element — the filmmaking process, the apparatus, the moving image, the spectator — plays a part: the filmmaker, actors, and crew produce their work in the belief that we would one day sit in a darkened hall to believe in that work. At one point, the narrator puts it starkly: “Without cinema, there would not be Martino and Amanda. The same could be said about you.”
And this — not fear, but the grand illusion — Ferrario shows us in a handful of dust, tossed into the air against the majestic Mole ceiling. As dust to dust, so does faith perish in disillusionment. Yet, of course, the point, perhaps unwittingly, remains: as life perseveres in view of the death, so passion remains eternal in the face of illusion. Cinema will never end, and neither will our love for it — for love, too, I’m sure, must be a major part of the reason why Ferrario made the film in the first place.