After Midnight pays tribute to the silent film era

By Emerald Gao

The Mole Antonelliana—located in Turin, Italy—houses the unique, vertically organized Museum of Cinema, which boasts a collection of over 7,000 films representing all periods of cinema—a true Mecca for cinephiles around the world. Against this backdrop, the central story of After Midnight unfolds as part romantic comedy, part tribute to the nuances of silent film.

This film, part of the World Cinema series at the Chicago International Film Festival, is a sweet, dreamy feature film by Italian director Davide Ferrario. Its protagonist, Martino, is a night custodian at the museum, and he is very much alone.

An old high school friend, who happens to be the only other night employee in the museum, remarks to Martino that he used to talk more. Martino, however, believes that most speech is unnecessary, that he is truly happy with the magic of a darkened cinema as his only companion. His only treasures are his bicycle and a 19mm hand-crank camera, which he uses to imitate the films of the Lumière brothers, who famously contended that “film is an invention without a future,” and who, according to Martino, “filmed the world as it really was.”

His entire life resembles a silent film, and he may or may not be a reincarnation of Buster Keaton, whose films he watches alone in the museum theater every night. He walks with the same anxious, clumsy amble; affects the same wide-eyed insecurity; and he is certainly afflicted with the same self-consciousness that made Keaton both awkward and compelling to watch.

If Martino is a silent film protagonist, then certainly there must be a girl in the picture. Enter Amanda, the luminous but disgruntled burger-joint worker, who Martino has been watching for quite some time. One night, an incident involving frayed nerves, her boss, and a vat of hot oil has Amanda running from the police. She takes sanctuary in the Mole, and Martino’s movie life suddenly resembles reality.

Of course, as in any good Keaton film, there must be an obstacle in the pursuit of love—namely, a slick tough-guy. In this film, he is simply called The Angel. And just like in Keaton films, he is too morally questionable for our sympathy, yet gracious enough to be undeserving of our scorn. The Angel is a womanizer and a thief, but his role in the film is to balance out the lovable gawkiness of Martino’s character with a noble criminal personality (despite the dishonest nature of his “employment,” he refuses to steal a coveted Jaguar for himself).

At first, it is difficult to interpret the passion between Martino and Amanda. There must be something born out of the eerily comfortable silence of the Mole, something illuminating in the glow of the movie screen. In the end, the director would have us believe it is nothing more than the fact that Martino makes Amanda smile and forget about her troubles. Likewise, Amanda’s kinetic presence makes Martino realize that, like Keaton, he cannot be satisfied with a passive life; he has to take action in order to truly live.

Perhaps that is the reason—the simple truth of their quiet romance—or perhaps it isn’t. The characters don’t need psychological motives to make this movie work, just like love doesn’t need to justify its existence. In one scene, Martino bravely shows Amanda a short film he made of her, inspired by Keaton’s Fire. This film is a silent declaration of his passion for her that—as he watches her watching herself on the screen—manifests itself as an expression of rapture on his face.

The Mole Antonelliana has been said to give people vertigo, and Ferrario’s camera work often mirrors that sensation with extreme angle shots and shaky movements. Ferrario also adopts some traits of silent film—cleverly placed placards, zooming in on the characters to end a scene—to lend a vintage feel to a film which would otherwise drift away with its own irreverence.

On a whole, After Midnight is not as ambitiously quirky as Amélie, nor is it a gratuitous homage to film, á là The Dreamers. Instead, it lies somewhere in-between—both sober and tender (like a Keaton film) and satisfied with its simple tale about the way movies resemble life and, in turn, the way life resembles a movie.