Of loneliness and low-lives in the slums of Lisbon, Basil da Cunha’s intimate community portrait After The Night brings neo-realism into the 21st century.
They Live By Night by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Set almost entirely within the Reboleira slum on the outskirts of Lisbon with its inhabitants playing the lead roles as versions of themselves, After The Night is a semi-fictional world of gangland politics and lonely outsiders. It’s a kaleidoscope of improvised experience – part-story driven and part images, as Swiss-Portuguese filmmaker Basil da Cunha mixes the thrills of the gangster genre with all the auteurist flourishes of the arthouse movie. After The Night is da Cunha’s first feature, and an accomplished film at that, lingering as it does on moments that have nothing to do with its story – accompanying loner Sombra on his nighttime jaunts or focusing on his relationship with Dragón, his pet iguana and only friend. Beautifully lensed by cinematographer Patrick Tresch and both written as well as directed by da Cunha, After The Night is the very real story of a community, which apart from its criminal edge isn’t too dissimilar from any other; we watch them as they watch TV, fight, eat and talk. But it’s the domestic intimacy of his portrait that gives Basil da Cunha’s film its bright lustre.
Recently released from prison, Sombra (Pedro Ferreira) has returned to the creole slum of Riboleira – living a nocturnal existence in an abandoned flat alone with his iguana Dragón. It’s a world of witch doctors, football and drug-dealing, and it’s not long before Sombra finds himself dragged back into the gang’s underworld as he tries to pay his debts and reclaim the money he’s owed. He hangs out on Lisbon rooftops with his friend Nuvem (Nelson da Cruz Duarte Rodrigues) and is visited by the neighbour’s girl Clarinha (Ana Clara Baptista de Melo Soares Barros) who takes a liking to his pet iguana. But when he’s forced by local gang boss Olos (João Veiga) to take part in a robbery to pay off his debts, Sombra splits when Olos’ brother is somehow killed. Sombra is shot in the arm, but with no other choice but to escape, he crosses Lisbon by night, attempting to elude Olos’ heavies and recover his pet iguana.
While not quite as poetic as the film’s Portuguese title Até Ver A Luz, which translates literally as Until You See The Light) and evokes almost religious notions of faith and salvation, Basil da Cunha’s feature debut After The Night suggests nevertheless, in a creole slum on the outskirts of Lisbon a metaphysical world of day and night, darkness and light. The film’s protagonist Sombra, who’s very name means Shadow, recently released from prison, is interrupted on his path towards redemption by unpaid debts and a drug-dealing gang boss who won’t let him forget it. He lives a nocturnal existence in a troubled demimonde, somewhere between going straight and lapsing back into crime, depriving himself as well as his pet iguana Dragón of the sunlight’s warmth on his skin. And while most of the film takes place at night, atmospherically lit with tungsten street lamps and throwaway lighters against the inky blue twilight, After The Night ends in a brightening dawn – as Sombra’s shadowy existence is brought into the light of day on his ultimate day of reckoning.
Whether a sun-bathing iguana cuts it as a metaphor for Sombra’s short-lived soul, issued into a happier place with almost religious insistence, is questionable. It’s a metaphor that doesn’t quite live up to much – Sombra’s hopes that he, Dragón and Clara will go and live on the moon or urging his friend Nuvem to follow the light, creating only a nihilistic kind of irony that Sombra would have been better off staying in the shadows. But there are nevertheless lots of bright moments in After The Night – the acting is largely improvised and the creole-speaking Riboleira residents manage to create a believable and amusing semi-fictional self-portrait, bristling with energy – an underworld where witch-doctor rituals and shamanistic beliefs live alongside petty crooks who argue over their preference for chicken or fish or throw stones at each other.
For the best thing about Basil da Cunha’s After The Night is the sense of reality he creates. It might sometimes be clumsy, such as the repetitive improvised dialogue with which Sombra’s aunt reprimands her nephew for climbing in through the window in front of her neighbours, but it sketches the community Sombra inhabits more deftly than any written script. There are beautiful moments – like the community dancing together, or the accordion music which da Cunha lingers over with anti-narrative joy. Occasionally brought down by a clichéd story, After The Night is nevertheless dotted with real moments of life – extraordinary and so luminous it makes you hopeful for what Basil da Cunha will do with daytime.
After The Night is released on 25th April 2014 in the UK