Occhiali Neri (2022)

Dark Glasses is Dario Argento’s first film in a decade, since Dracula 3D, and much ink and pixels have been spilled discussing just as much when Argento peaked as the peaks themselves.

To those who don’t have a watchlist of giallo films in the hundreds, a quick reminder that while the genre didn’t start with the Italian director — you can look at them as an Italian mashup of Hitchcock films, the books of Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie, filtered through the 60s and 70s and indebted to two Mario Bava films, The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace — but his landmark The Bird With the Crystal Plumage was a worldwide success and created a two-year deluge of long-named and often-animal referencing films. Even from his second giallo, The Cat o’ Nine Tails (which he amazingly made a year later, the very same twelve-month period that he also made Four Flies on Grey Velvet) there was talk that Bird was a fluke. Following an attempt at leaving the form with The Five Days of Milan, Argento created Deep Red, which is an upper-tier giallo with story beats that have been endlessly repeated by lesser hands.

Two years later, he followed that with the supernatural Suspiria, a film that took the colors and tones of Snow White and applied them to a story by Argento’s then-wife Dario Nicolodi and achieved immortality. While the sequel Inferno was not as well-received and was a personally troubled production for an ailing Argento, it features perhaps the wildest visual flourishes and moments of his resume.

The debate comes in as to when Argento lost his way.

Tenebre is, to me, an unassailable film that is the final word on the giallo form. By that, I mean that I will certainly watch any new yellow-poster referencing movie ever made, but it feels like everything that Argento wanted to say to critics and fans. Everything after that was non-supernatural just didn’t seem like it worked as well.

That’s why Phenomena works for me. Sure, it seems like it’s referencing Suspiria at times, but it also has some of the creator’s most personal revelations. I’d probably say that Opera is his last blast at relevance, as it contains some incredible visuals even if the story doesn’t always add up. Then again, if we can all admit it, the story wasn’t always what brought us to Argento’s films. Often, it was the tone, the look, the movements, the strange other worlds he built and plot holes that could be forgiven.

Since then, each film — I’m not counting Two Evil Eyes — has been touted and hoped as a return to form, from the American-sot Trauma and the art malady thriller The Stendhal Syndrome to The Phantom of the OperaSleepless (which starts great and then, well), The Card PlayerMother of Tears (which attempted to close off the cycle of Suspiria and Inferno), the poorly regarded Giallo and the even worse received Dracula 3D.

If you’re an Argento fan, you may think this is an oversimplification of his career (yeah, what about the films he helped guide like Dawn of the DeadDemonsThe Sect, The Church and The Wax Mask?!?) and if you’re not, you probably want me to get to the film, right?

Dark Glasses was originally going to be made years ago, back when Vittorio Cecchi Gori was going to produce it. He went out of business and Argento put the story away until his daughter Asia found it while writing her 2021 autobiography Anatomy of a Wild Heart.

What emerges is a film that is equally a giallo, a rumination on past films and perhaps a final stamp if this is where things end, seeing as how Argento turns 82 in September.

It begins with an eclipse and as we watch everyone protect their eyes from the glare, Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli, They Call Me Jeeg) looks up and slightly damages her eyes, giving the script a moment to quote Francois de La Rochefoucauld, the French moralist who wrote: “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye.”

She seems not from our world, but of the night. Intriguingly, while she’s a sex worker, Argento never treats her with anything less than dignity as we see her go through her work. One of her clients even tells her that the reason he hires her is because of her strength and independence. She also handily deals with another by telling him that she doesn’t want the orgasm that he claims that he could give her or even his money. She does this explicitly for herself and for her own reasons.

However, there is violence in her life. A man named Matteo (Andrea Gherpelli) who met her in a chat room comes to her house — her maid continually looks at her with disdain and even claims what happens next is a punishment from God — smelling of the dogs he trains and she asks him to shower, which is met with a series of belittling epithets. And the very same client who promised her all those orgasms attempts to attack her at which point she sprays his eyes with mace (Fulci would have loved all the ocular violence in this movie) and runs into the night.

That’s when Diana comes into conflict with perhaps the most important character in any giallo, the killer. We’ve already seen him garrotte another call girl and leave her bloody body outside the apartment of her last client. And in this moment, we’re reminded of the fact that this is fifty years after Bird as everyone that walks near the crime scene has a phone that instantly connects them to another world. The police now use forensics and science in addition to their deductive skills. And at once, everything feels safer yet perhaps more frightening when it all falls apart.

As Diana calms herself inside her car, a man rushes as her, leading her to wildly drive into the night. It’s that very same killer we saw at the beginning and his white van pursues her past the same plazas and streets we may remember from past giallo films but now covered with scaffolds as Rome strives to rebuild and keep itself together. This pursuit pushes Diana’s car into the path of another car, instantly killing the driver, putting his wife in a coma and effectively orphaning their son Chin (Xinyu Zhang).

When Diana awakes, her life has changed. The accident damaged her Brodmann area — specifically area 17 — the part of the brain that contains the primary visual cortex. This has rendered our heroine blind. She attempts to salvage her life — one client remarks that he always found himself so ugly that her being blind was the only way that he could get up the nerve to even hire her — and is helped by Rita (Asia Argento), who introduces her to the organization, tools and methods of how to survive as a blind person. Whereas Diana was once blissfully not of our world, an independent woman who could even forget there was an eclipse, now her life has become one of dependence on a cane, on Rita and on her new dog Nerea (which means mine and you can see the dog as part of Diana reclaiming her life). She is no longer of our world yet struggles to return to normalcy, focusing on the sounds of traffic to even do something as simple as cross the street.

Meanwhile, she attempts to assuage her guilt over the deaths of Chin’s parents by meeting him. Her gift of a video game means nothing to him yet when she stops him from being bullied, they connect. Obviously, their relationship is one that looks back to Cookie and Lori from The Cat o’ Nine Tails. Despite how simplistic some of the relationships appear, Argento does succeed in not only having strong female characters but also ones that you come to care for. That means that their loss is more deeply felt, something the giallo and its inelegant American cousin the slasher have always struggled with.

The killer hasn’t forgotten Diana and his white van continues to follow her. However, she now lives in a world of darkness, so she can’t even see him coming. Her strength has returned, as she easily rids herself of two cops seeking Chin, cops who live up to the giallo standard of always featuring the most ineffective and stupid of all law enforcement officers (seriously, Chief Inspector Aleard (Mario Pirrello) is more upset about the death of the killer than how he’d endangered Diana and Chin).

As Diana retreats from the killer, losing a friend, possibly her dog and perhaps even Chin, she finds herself alone in the unfamiliar countryside facing a killer who has been planning her death since the film began.

I read a great quote about Argento from Adrian on Letterboxd: “Argento’s movies always have been ridiculous. It’s just more prevalent now that the budgets got lower.” That’s very true of this movie, as at times I felt I was watching a TV movie instead of a film by the auteur who made Suspiria. Then, out of nowhere, a water snake attack makes everything feel just right again, a wild moment in the midst of normalcy.

I kind of love that the film closes with an inversion of the opening of Suspiria as well as a dog attack that reminds one of that movie as much as it does Dickie in Fulci’s The Beyond. And there’s a lot to enjoy here. I totally loved the soundtrack by Arnaud Rebotini as it’s intense, driving and actually does what the music in a giallo should: it makes the movie even better. The kill scenes are perhaps more realistic than past Argento films and less fantastic — no one’s head goes out a window — and are filled with gore.

Yet this is a giallo if only because Argento made it. There’s no mystery who the killer is. That’s not the story. The story is about how Diana survives this ordeal and her tragedy, if only she is left all alone with only a single friend left by the end. This doesn’t have the black hands of the killer in point of view nor the surprising reveal that marked the genius of all of Argento’s best thrillers yet it improves upon his past works, shows reference for the past and hopefully gives him the opportunity to continue to make films.

I liked it — and not in that way that I feel indebted to Argento and have to say things like Sleepless is great up to the train scene — and appreciate that I cared more about its characters than any of his in some time — again recalling my love for the relationships between Cookie and Lori in Cat and Marcus and Gianni in Deep Red. So while I may miss the wild zooms and dizzying colors, I can appreciate that growth and dream of one more chance from the master.

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