Movie love -- at its most delirious, rapturous and promiscuous -- is both the center and the driving force of "After Midnight," Italian director Davide Ferrario's homage to cinema, from its origins with the Lumiere Brothers and Buster Keaton to the reckless romanticism of the French new wave.
With the summer blockbuster season upon us, it's easy to forget that movies were once a means not of exploiting a franchise or maximizing profit but a way of conveying pure wonder. The baleful protagonist of "After Midnight," who works in a cavernous museum of cinema history in Turin, Italy, longs for an era long past, when simple films of trains coming into stations and two men clowning with a garden hose were enough to thrill audiences. A time, as "Midnight's" narrator explains, when the art form's pioneers were "filming the world as it is, before it became about fatal attractions and guns."
As much as he honors cinema's pre-narrative state of nature, Ferrario is not above putting a few hoary plot cliches (including fatal attractions and guns) into the mix to spice things up a bit. When it's not rhapsodizing over ancient magic lantern shows and silent classics, "After Midnight" is as conventional as they come, a two-guys-and-a-girl romance involving sex, crime and a femme fatale on the lam. Giorgio Pasotti plays Martino, the sad-eyed museum worker who venerates Keaton and who has tried as best he can to approximate Keaton's world, from the witty gadgets that populated his movie sets (a record player that turns into a bar) to the actor's signature pratfalls, tics and subtle physical gags. But Martino's tightly controlled universe is shattered with the arrival of Amanda (Francesca Inaudi), a fast-food clerk who crashes into his life after dousing her boss with a vat of french fry oil. The two embark on an unlikely romance, made problematic by Amanda's volatile boyfriend, Angel (Fabio Troiano). This is where the French new wave comes in (not to mention a few too many whimsical plot contrivances), as Amanda finds herself in a "Jules and Jim"-like triangle.
Filmed at Turin's cinema museum, the cathedral-like Mole Antonelliana, "After Midnight" is a crash course in early movie history as Martino lovingly shows Amanda -- and the audience -- the contraptions that eventually led to the invention of movies in the 1890s. A study in cinematic depth and texture, as well as the eroticism, illusion and slapstick humor that characterized the earliest films, "After Midnight" effects a graceful synthesis between past and present -- often literally, from Ferrario's use of such archaic devices as intertitles and iris shots to the home movies Martino makes using an antique hand-cranked camera and old silent movie clips.
As far as comparisons to other movies, the most obvious is to "Cinema Paradiso," another passionate Italian love letter to movies and all they represent. But whereas that 1989 movie transcended its own obsessions to become a universal, even classic, coming-of-age story, "After Midnight" is pitched to a frequency heard by only a select group of filmgoers, those who, like Martino, worship cinema at its most esoteric and rue the day that narrative took over a medium whose magic lay in shadows and light (that select group will probably not mind the presence of the narrator, who constantly interrupts with cloyingly pretentious announcements). Much of "After Midnight" transpires in darkness, which is appropriate for a movie that longs for a return to a cinema that, rather than marketing, merchandise and corporate synergy, is about the mysteries that flicker to life after the lights go down.
After Midnight (89 minutes, in Italian with subtitles, at the AFI Silver) is not rated. It contains brief nudity and mild sexuality.