After the Night review

Basil Da Cunha’s debut feature, After the Night (Até Ver a Luz), follows a number of short films onto the director’s resume, including two which were also set in the same areas in and around the slums just outside Lisbon, Portugal. With the feature, Da Cunha is focusing specifically on the Creole community of Reboleira, and he’s most concerned with one of that area’s residents, Sombra (Pedro Ferreira).

Sombra has recently been released from prison and is entirely consumed by the crime that surrounds him. He’s fully immersed in drug deals, the pursuit of money and the struggle to stay alive. Da Cunha adds some shade to the character, giving Sombra some enigmatic statements about the passing of day and night, a visit to a local witch doctor, and also a pet iguana. We come to discover that the lizard is providing Sombra with his only meaningful relationship in the world.

Da Cunha follows Sombra around closely, with the camera sticking to him as he climbs over roofs and ducks into cramped dwellings. As the film unfolds, we slowly follow him through one difficult situation after another, building up to a strong sense that things are not going to end well.

Da Cunha spares some time for Reboleira gang members, shown relaxing and shooting the breeze. These scenes help the film develop a sense of being an embedded document, perhaps something of an attempt at a documentary-style fiction film. Da Cunha used local actors who reportedly improvised much of the dialogue and there is a great deal in the way the camera moves that appears to be informed by documentaries. But this stylistic choice never entirely sticks and due to a heavy reliance on familiar tropes, the documentary look is contradicted by continual sense that what we are watching is a construction.

Cinematographer Patrick Tresch certainly deserves praise for the way in which he plays with shadows and orange hues, allowing the film look striking without going so far that he contributes to that sense of artifice. Much in the colour design of the film could have easily been conspicuous, but Tresch manipulates without drawing attention.

After the Night‘s plot is delivered very casually and the central character is somewhat undeveloped, with the film most often feeling detached from its subject. Da Cunha seems to be executing an exercise in filmmaking and delivering a dry run rather than working on a finished article. He clearly had a strong idea but with After the Night we see Da Cunha still working this idea out, rather than telling us a story.

It’s a fiction feature but the problems that affect After the Night are the ones that most regularly dog documentaries. The subject appears to be very interesting but the form never steps up to do it justice.

After the Night was released in UK cinemas on the 25th of April.